Substance Use

How Does Alcohol Affect the Kidneys?

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Drinking alcohol, especially excessive drinking, can significantly impact your kidneys. Prolonged heavy drinking escalates the likelihood of a condition known as proteinuria, where excessive protein is present in your urine. This condition can be a warning sign for chronic kidney disease and other detrimental consequences.

Alcohol drinking also has long-term effects on kidney function; if you have a pre-existing kidney condition, alcohol can exacerbate it. Talk to your doctor about how much alcohol you can drink without causing further damage or kidney failure. (1)(2)

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The Anatomy and Function of the Kidneys

Your kidneys are small, bean-shaped organs nestled beneath your ribcage. Despite their size, they play an unthinkable role in keeping you healthy. (3)

Here’s a simplified look at your kidneys’ abilities:

  • Blood filtering: Think of your kidneys as filters. They clean your blood by removing waste and toxins, helping maintain your body’s balance.
  • Balancing minerals: Kidneys control essential minerals like sodium, potassium, and calcium in your body, ensuring your nerves, muscles, and pH levels function correctly.
  • Managing fluids: Your kidneys help regulate your body’s water levels, ensuring you stay hydrated by adjusting the amount of urine you produce. (4)
  • Blood pressure control: They release a hormone called renin that helps control your blood pressure, ensuring you don’t have low or high blood pressure. (5)
  • Red blood cells: Kidneys produce erythropoietin, a hormone that prompts your bone marrow to make red blood cells, essential for oxygen delivery.
  • Detoxification: They remove waste and excess medications, helping your body stay clean.
  • pH balance: Kidneys keep your body’s pH levels by excreting acids and absorbing bicarbonate. (6)

How Does Drinking Alcohol Affect Your Kidneys?

Binge drinking alcohol initiates a cascade of events that can significantly affect your kidneys. As your liver metabolizes alcohol, the resulting waste products are expelled into your urine, exerting added stress on your kidneys and potentially causing long-term harm.

  • Mechanism of alcohol metabolism: Your kidneys filter waste and maintain your body’s internal equilibrium. As any amount of alcohol is metabolized, the byproducts, including acetaldehyde and acetate, find their way into your bloodstream and are subsequently processed by the kidneys. This added workload can gradually strain your kidneys and may lead to long-term consequences. (7)
  • Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance: Alcohol is a diuretic that promotes water loss from your body. The more alcohol you consume, the greater the volume of water expelled, contributing to dehydration. This dehydration intensifies the demands placed on your kidneys as they tirelessly strive to regulate your body’s water and electrolyte levels, such as sodium and potassium. The outcome is hormone fluctuations, including vasopressin and aldosterone, which influence water and salt balance. The surge in these hormones due to alcohol intake compels your kidneys to work harder to maintain equilibrium. (7)(8)

According to a study of adult male drinkers published in the National Library of Medicine, moderate drinkers exhibited a lower chronic kidney disease prevalence than non-drinkers and heavy drinkers.

However, chronic kidney disease (CKD) risk rises sharply when alcohol consumption surpasses 18 standard drinks per week. (9)

The signs of severe kidney damage, according to a study published in the National Library of Medicine, include:

  • Nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite: Persistent nausea and vomiting and a loss of appetite can signal significant kidney issues.
  • Fatigue, weakness, and sleep troubles: Experiencing extreme fatigue, weakness, and sleep disruptions may indicate kidney damage.
  • Decreased urine output: A noticeable decrease in urine production can be a telltale sign of impaired kidney function. (10)
  • Deterioration of cognitive function: Cognitive abilities may decline, impacting memory and concentration.
  • Muscle twitches, cramps, and swelling: Unexplained muscle twitches, cramps, and swelling in the feet or ankles can be associated with kidney problems.
  • Itchiness: Persistent itchiness can be linked to kidney damage, especially without an apparent cause.
  • Chest pain: Unexplained chest pain should be evaluated, as it may be related to severe kidney issues.
  • Shortness of breath: Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath may be an alarming symptom of kidney damage. (11)
  • Hypertension challenges: Struggles in controlling hypertension, or high blood pressure, can be connected to kidney dysfunction. (12)(13)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that proteinuria, or the presence of protein in your urine, is one of the earliest signs of kidney dysfunction and could require hospitalization.

Below are two ways this becomes evident.

1. Dipstick Urine Test

In this test, a dipstick infused with chemicals is used to determine whether levels of albumin (a protein produced by your liver) are normal or not. If abnormal levels are found, the dipstick changes color.

This test only evaluates the presence of proteins. It does not provide an exact measurement, so your doctor may order further testing if abnormal results are present. (14)

2. Albumin-to-Creatinine Ratio Test

Another important kidney health test is the urine albumin-to-creatinine ratio test or UACR. This test measures the albumin in the urine relative to creatinine, allowing a doctor to track how much albumin is passing into the urine daily.

A result of 30 or higher may be indicative of kidney disease or the negative effects of an alcoholic beverage. Sometimes, further testing is needed to confirm any diagnosis. (15)

Identifying these signs of kidney failure from regular heavy drinking is essential to your physical and mental health. Seeking medical attention or alcohol addiction treatment is vital to address severe kidney damage and prevent further complications.

Long-Term Consequences of Alcohol on Kidney Health

According to MedlinePlus, acute kidney failure can disorient your body in a short time (less than 48 hours), impairing the kidneys’ waste filter and maintaining a balance between fluids, electrolytes, and other factors.

Chronic kidney disease, however, is characterized by a slow decline in the normal function of your kidneys. It worsens over months or years, and the loss of function may be so slow that you don’t notice any symptoms until your kidneys have almost stopped working.

Understanding the profound impact of alcohol on kidney health requires exploring the spectrum of alcohol-related kidney diseases. (16) These conditions encompass:

  1. Acute Kidney Injury (AKI): Acute kidney injury is a sudden and often reversible decline in kidney function. It can result from heavy alcohol consumption, causing dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. In severe cases, AKI can lead to irreversible kidney damage. (17)
  2. Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD): Chronic kidney disease is characterized by gradually losing kidney function over time. Alcohol’s long-term effects, such as high blood pressure, dehydration, and the production of harmful metabolites, can contribute to the development or progression of CKD.
  3. Electrolyte Imbalances: Prolonged alcohol use can disrupt the balance of electrolytes like sodium and potassium, potentially leading to a build-up, or electrolyte imbalances. These imbalances can strain the kidneys as they work to restore equilibrium.
  4. Glomerulonephritis: Alcohol abuse can increase the risk of glomerulonephritis, an inflammation of the glomeruli (small blood vessels in the kidneys). This condition can impair kidney function, leading to long-term consequences.
  5. Increased Risk of Kidney Stones: Alcohol consumption may lead to the formation of kidney stones, particularly in individuals who become dehydrated due to excessive drinking. These stones can obstruct the urinary tract and harm kidney function while experiencing kidney pain. (18)(19)
  6. Liver Disease and Kidney Dysfunction: Chronic alcohol abuse can cause liver disease. The liver and kidneys work closely together to process waste and toxins. Liver dysfunction can indirectly affect the kidneys, impacting their ability to filter and detoxify the blood flow.

Can Kidneys Recover From Alcohol Damage?

Alcohol-induced kidney damage can raise concerns about the potential for recovery. According to leading medical sources, the kidneys can regenerate and repair, particularly when alcohol-induced damage is identified and mitigated early.

However, the extent of recovery largely depends on factors like the severity of kidney damage, the individual’s overall health, and their commitment to abstaining from excessive alcohol consumption. In acute kidney injury (AKI), which can result from alcohol-induced dehydration, prompt medical intervention, and rehydration can often lead to a full recovery.

On the other hand, chronic kidney disease (CKD) may present more significant challenges, as the damage is often progressive and may require ongoing management, including lifestyle changes and medication.

Kidney health is closely linked to overall well-being, emphasizing the importance of moderation in alcohol consumption. Seeking medical advice from healthcare providers when necessary to support kidney recovery and alleviate long-term consequences.

If you choose to drink alcohol, stay within the recommended guidelines. NIAAA recommends no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one for women. These guidelines may seem strict. However, the effects of alcohol on health can be serious, even for moderate drinkers. (20)

Alcohol is also a known carcinogen, which can cause cancer, and chronic drinking can cause liver damage.

Need Help Taking Control Over Your Alcohol Intake?

While moderate drinking may not cause noticeable kidney damage, excessive drinking or binge drinking can lead to serious problems like chronic kidney disease and acute kidney injury.

If you’re concerned about your alcohol consumption and its effects on your kidneys, support resources are available. Seeking medical advice, exploring treatment options, and tapping into community support can be instrumental in taking control of your alcohol intake. Remember, it’s never too late to prioritize your kidney health.

If you have been struggling with chronic alcohol use or other health problems, know that you are not alone. At Zinnia Health, we understand that the road to a life free of addiction can be difficult. That’s why we provide tailored strategies and support during all stages of overcoming alcoholism. Don’t hesitate to call our 24/7 alcohol addiction hotline at (855) 430-9439 for more information about how we can help you quit drinking for good.


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