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How to Reverse Kidney Damage Naturally

Article written and reviewed by Cyrus Khambatta, PhD
Published February 18, 2021

Can You Reverse Kidney Damage?

Your kidneys are a crucial part of your body’s waste elimination system. They help regulate excess liquid, remove waste products, maintain acid/base balance, and produce key hormones like erithroprotein (EPO), which signals the production of red blood cells.

As a result, kidney damage and kidney disease can have a number of different effects, causing severe metabolic distress.

Fortunately, your kidneys tend to be durable and capable of healing even from most late stage acute damage (though not all), and by adjusting your diet, improving your cardiovascular health, and avoiding high risk behaviors, you can often experience a full recovery.

What Causes Kidney Damage?

Think of your kidneys act as a natural blood filtration system. Twenty four hours a day, they’re filtering your blood for waste metabolites, which means that your diet can play a large role in their long-term health.

There are three main categories of risk factors for kidney injury: 

  • An unhealthy diet
  • Chronic diseases
  • Alcohol and drugs

We’ll touch on a few of the most common below.

Kidney Damage from High Blood Pressure

One of the most common causes for kidney damage is high blood pressure, which can occur as a result of a wide number of different risk factors (including some listed below).

Think of your kidneys as one of your body’s natural “filtration pumps”, which function ideally at normal blood pressure. Hypertension due to heart disease, high cholesterol, or any number of other conditions that can increase your blood pressure puts an excess strain on this filtration system.

Over a long time exposed to high blood pressure, the blood vessels in the kidneys can be damaged, worn down, or hardened, which limit the kidney’s ability to filter your blood and perform its vital functions.

Kidney Damage from Diabetes

Kidney damage from diabetes can occur in people with type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, prediabetes, or any other condition that can cause hyperglycemia (also known as high blood glucose or high blood sugar).

When poorly managed, these conditions can lead to consistently high blood glucose levels, which in turn can damage the blood vessels and nephrons in your kidneys.

Kidney Damage from Alcohol

Your kidneys, along with your liver, are responsible for filtering harmful waste products in your blood, which includes alcohol. However, if exposed to these harmful products in excess quantities for a long period of time, even these filtration systems become damaged.

Combined with the fact that alcohol is a diuretic (which increases urination and can lead to your kidneys ‘drying out’ while dehydrated), and the fact that alcohol can lead to high blood pressure in the long term, you have a three-pronged risk for kidney disease.

Most experts say that increased risk kidney damage from alcohol begins to take place at an average of more than two drinks per day, and with heavy drinkers (more than 4 alcoholic drinks/day or 14 alcoholic drinks/week), this risk can be doubled.

Kidney Damage from Ibuprofen

Ibuprofen, as well as similar over-the-counter pain relievers like naproxen and aspirin, tend to be safe when taken in small doses.

However, the chemical process of these pain killers places a stress on your kidneys, and when taken in high doses or over an extended period of time can cause kidney damage.

We highly recommend following the safety information on these medications carefully, or with the guidance of a doctor.

Kidney Damage from COVID-19

One of the many complications that can result from COVID-19 is acute kidney injury (AKI), in which your kidneys suddenly take damage as a result of some medical condition or toxin.

Though the exact reason for this damage is still unclear due to COVID-19’s relative newness on the world stage, we recommend taking excessive caution if you have a history of kidney disease or one of the other conditions linked above.

Types of Kidney Damage

There are three types of kidney damage, progressing from temporary, acute conditions to end-stage kidney failure. We’ll touch on each below.

Acute Kidney Failure

The first type of kidney damage is acute kidney failure, sometimes referred to as acute renal failure. Despite its comparatively rapid onset compared to other forms of kidney damage, acute kidney failure usually occurs over the course of a few days, and coincides with other serious conditions.

If, for any reasons (usually related to limited or disrupted blood flow), your kidneys lose the ability to filter blood, the resulting lack of filtration causes electrolytes, fluids, and waste products to accumulate in your blood. This can damage any number of organs, and should be addressed by medical professionals immediately.

Left unattended, acute kidney failure can be fatal, so it’s important to immediately visit a doctor if you experience any of the symptoms, which include:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Confusion
  • Decreased urine output
  • Fatigue
  • Fluid retention, causing swelling in your legs, ankles or feet
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Seizures or coma in severe cases
  • Weakness

In most cases, however, acute kidney disease can be treated effectively, and patients can experience a full recovery.

Chronic Kidney Disease (Chronic Kidney Failure)

Chronic kidney disease, also known as CKD or early-stage kidney failure, affects 14% of the population and occurs when your kidneys are subject to chronic diseases like hypertension, high blood glucose, or alcohol and drug abuse for long periods of time.

Rather than a sudden build up of fluids and compounds, CKD is caused by the steady wearing down and damage of your kidneys, which reduces their ability to perform critical functions.

The symptoms of chronic kidney disease, which include weight loss, swollen extremities, tiredness, cramps, and urinary difficulties, can onset slowly because your kidneys can still function for a little while while damaged.

For this reason, it’s important to pay careful attention to your blood work and health, particularly if you have diabetes or high blood pressure. If caught early enough, it’s possible to recover from chronic kidney disease before symptoms worsen, or ultimately cause end-stage renal disease.

End-Stage Renal Disease

End-stage renal disease is total failure of your kidneys, which results from chronic kidney damage that has gone on for too long. With end-stage renal disease, your kidneys can no longer filter your blood, which causes rapid onset of a number of conditions.

End-stage renal disease cannot be reversed, and can only be cured via dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Kidney Disease Diagnosis

If you have any of the symptoms for any of the conditions above, you’ll work with a nephrologist (kidney doctor) to take both a urine test and some blood tests.

The first line of identification is measuring the levels of a waste product called creatinine in your body, which helps determine a biomarker called the glomerular filtration rate (GFR). If your GFR is too low, or there is a compound called urea present in your blood, you’ll need treatment for kidney disease.

A previous medical history can give your nephrologist an indication if your disease is chronic or acute. However, one of the ways they can determine for sure is a process called a biopsy, where they will collect a small sample of kidney tissue for testing via an extraction needle.

Kidney Damage Treatment Options

There are two levels of healthcare to treat kidney damage, depending on the severity of the kidney damage. In cases where damage is acute, or minimal, it’s possible to treat the complications of the disease with medication until lifestyle changes can be made.

However, in the case of severe or end-stage kidney damage, the only treatment options are dialysis and kidney transplant.

Before any treatment for kidney damage, we highly recommend talking to your trusted healthcare professional, as they can determine exactly the stage of your kidney damage and the best solution.

Treating Complications

The first line of treatment for early-stage kidney damage and acute kidney damage is to target the causes of the kidney damage (usually high blood pressure or accompanying high cholesterol), with medication until patients are able to use dietary changes to combat them.

These medications, like angiotensin-converting-enzyme inhibitors (ACE inhibitors), reduce the release of the signals to narrow blood vessels. Again, this is just a temporary fix, and should be accompanied by dietary and lifestyle changes to be fully effective.

Dialysis

In the case of more extreme cases of kidney damage, dialysis may be required, which is the routine, manual flushing of your kidneys by an artificial machine. This replaces the natural removal of waste products by your kidneys, which can no longer provide this function.

Despite advances in recent years, dialysis is a treatment with a limited scope of success. Most indications show that patients on dialysis survive for 5-10 years, though these treatments have been prolonged for 20-30 years if adhered to correctly.

Kidney Transplant

One last resort for kidney failure, especially with end-stage renal disease is a kidney transplant, which is often used in tandem with dialysis. A kidney transplant involves finding a suitable donor with similar enough blood and biochemistry to allow for a transplant that the body will accept.

Though usually a more permanent solution than dialysis, the transplant process can be very difficult and complicated, often requiring long waits before a suitable donor can be found.

Reverse Kidney Damage Naturally

Despite the various medical advances made to help heal kidney damage, the most powerful way that you can improve your kidney health is with lifestyle changes, especially changes to your diet

Ensuring that you eat enough potassium, phosphorous, calcium, and vitamin D (all found in various fruits and plants) is a good start, as these nutrients are fundamental to kidney health, but without controlling your high blood glucose and blood pressure, these changes are temporary.

That’s why we recommend a heavily plant-based diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains if you’re suffering from high blood glucose and blood pressure. This diet is the first step to reverse insulin resistance, and can help vastly improve your cardiovascular health overall.

Eating potassium-rich foods can dramatically reduce your blood pressure, so include foods like tomatoes, potatoes, avocados, melons, oranges, bananas, nuts, seeds, dates, cruciferous vegetables into your diet on a daily basis.

One of the most effective ways to improve your kidney function is to reduce your intake of protein to approximately 0.8-1.0 g/kg body weight per day. Even though you may be tempted to eat a high-protein diet, understand that reducing your protein intake is a safe and highly effective way to reduce your risk of developing end stage renal disease (ESRD).

To accomplish this, we recommend eating a low-fat, plant-based, whole-food diet because it is an effective way to eat whole foods and target 0.8-1.0 g/kg protein intake per day.

One of the most underappreciated ways to optimize your kidney health is to eat fiber-rich foods. Fiber is a crucial nutrient that functions to improve the health of your microbiome, and people who eat between 50-100 grams of fiber per day experience the lowest rates of all-cause mortality.

To eat more fiber, simply eat the majority of your diet from these foods:

  • Whole grains
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Legumes
  • Nuts

And in the process, do your best to reduce or eliminate your intake of:

  • Salt
  • Refined grains
  • Protein (especially animal protein)
  • Red and processed meats
  • Dairy products
  • Sugar-sweetened foods and beverages

For more information, check out the article we wrote about Sanna, who was able to reverse stage 3 kidney disease by changing her diet.

To learn more about how you can use a plant-based diet, along with other strategies, to improve your cardiovascular health, reduce your risk of kidney disease, and even reverse early-stage damage, you can explore our coaching program and resources.

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About the author 

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD is a New York Times bestselling co-author of Mastering Diabetes: The Revolutionary Method to Reverse Insulin Resistance Permanently in Type 1, Type 1.5, Type 2, Prediabetes, and Gestational Diabetes. He is the co-founder of Mastering Diabetes and Amla Green, and is an internationally recognized nutrition and fitness coach who has been living with type 1 diabetes since 2002. He co-created the Mastering Diabetes Method to reverse insulin resistance in all forms of diabetes, and has helped more than 10,000 people improve their metabolic health using low-fat, plant-based, whole-food nutrition, intermittent fasting, and exercise. Cyrus earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University in 2003, then earned a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley in 2012. He is the co-author of many peer-reviewed scientific publications. He is the co-host of the annual Mastering Diabetes Online Summit, a featured speaker at the Plant-Based Nutrition and Healthcare Conference (PBNHC), the American College of Lifestyle Medicine Conference (ACLM), Plant Stock, the Torrance Memorial Medical Center, and has been featured on The Doctors, NPR, KQED, Forks Over Knives, Healthline, Fast Company, Diet Fiction, and the wildly popular podcasts the Rich Roll Podcast, Plant Proof, MindBodyGreen, and Nutrition Rounds. Scientific Publications: Sarver, Jordan, Cyrus Khambatta, Robby Barbaro, Bhakti Chavan, and David Drozek. “Retrospective Evaluation of an Online Diabetes Health Coaching Program: A Pilot Study.” American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, October 15, 2019, 1559827619879106. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827619879106 Shrivastav, Maneesh, William Gibson, Rajendra Shrivastav, Katie Elzea, Cyrus Khambatta, Rohan Sonawane, Joseph A. Sierra, and Robert Vigersky. “Type 2 Diabetes Management in Primary Care: The Role of Retrospective, Professional Continuous Glucose Monitoring.” Diabetes Spectrum: A Publication of the American Diabetes Association 31, no. 3 (August 2018): 279–87. https://doi.org/10.2337/ds17-0024 Thompson, Airlia C. S., Matthew D. Bruss, John C. Price, Cyrus F. Khambatta, William E. Holmes, Marc Colangelo, Marcy Dalidd, et al. “Reduced in Vivo Hepatic Proteome Replacement Rates but Not Cell Proliferation Rates Predict Maximum Lifespan Extension in Mice.” Aging Cell 15, no. 1 (February 2016): 118–27. https://doi.org/10.1111/acel.12414 Roohk, Donald J., Smita Mascharak, Cyrus Khambatta, Ho Leung, Marc Hellerstein, and Charles Harris. “Dexamethasone-Mediated Changes in Adipose Triacylglycerol Metabolism Are Exaggerated, Not Diminished, in the Absence of a Functional GR Dimerization Domain.” Endocrinology 154, no. 4 (April 2013): 1528–39. https://doi.org/10.1210/en.2011-1047 Price, John C., Cyrus F. Khambatta, Kelvin W. Li, Matthew D. Bruss, Mahalakshmi Shankaran, Marcy Dalidd, Nicholas A. Floreani, et al. “The Effect of Long Term Calorie Restriction on in Vivo Hepatic Proteostatis: A Novel Combination of Dynamic and Quantitative Proteomics.” Molecular & Cellular Proteomics: MCP 11, no. 12 (December 2012): 1801–14. https://doi.org/10.1074/mcp.M112.021204 Bruss, Matthew D., Airlia C. S. Thompson, Ishita Aggarwal, Cyrus F. Khambatta, and Marc K. Hellerstein. “The Effects of Physiological Adaptations to Calorie Restriction on Global Cell Proliferation Rates.” American Journal of Physiology. Endocrinology and Metabolism 300, no. 4 (April 2011): E735-745. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpendo.00661.2010 Bruss, Matthew D., Cyrus F. Khambatta, Maxwell A. Ruby, Ishita Aggarwal, and Marc K. Hellerstein. “Calorie Restriction Increases Fatty Acid Synthesis and Whole Body Fat Oxidation Rates.” American Journal of Physiology. Endocrinology and Metabolism 298, no. 1 (January 2010): E108-116. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpendo.00524.2009