Can Alcohol Cause Kidney Failure?

Drinking too much can cause a ton of health issues, one of them being compromised kidney function. Can alcohol cause kidney failure? Yes. This in turn can lead to liver disease or outright liver failure, the results of which can be fatal (how shocking that despite this, people still drink alcohol) Your kidneys play an integral part in your overall health and you cannot live without them. 

What Do Kidneys Do? 

To fully appreciate how important the kidneys are (and why their failure would be devastating to the body) let’s take a closer look at what the kidneys do. The kidneys are two small, bean-shaped organs located just beneath your ribcage. These tiny-but-mighty organs are involved with the urinary tract, hormone excretion, making sure your blood is clean and chemically balanced and removing harmful substances from your body. 

Your kidneys filter about 150 quarts of blood each day. During this process, toxic compounds are removed while the waters, salts, and minerals that your blood needs to power the rest of your body, are added. This is crucial to maintaining healthy nerves, muscles, and body tissue. Your kidneys also play a direct role in maintaining cardiovascular health as the control center for hormones that regulate blood pressure and the creation of red blood cells.

When the kidney is unable to perform its job, your body fills with fluid and waste products. This buildup can cause a host of other issues from tiredness to swelling of the limbs, to anemia. If this condition persists, the consequences can be fatal.

How Alcohol Damages Kidneys

Binge drinking and chronic alcohol abuse can spell bad news for the kidneys in more ways than one. Directly, alcohol impairs the kidney’s ability to regulate fluid in the body as well as the balance of vitamins and minerals. This imbalance can spark a number of disturbances well beyond the kidney’s normal scope and can result in exhaustion, confusion, difficulty breathing, chest pain, and swollen limbs. 

How does this happen? The presence of alcohol causes kidney cell walls to thicken causing enlargement of the kidney, a condition strongly linked to impaired kidney function. Simultaneously, alcohol directly interferes with the kidney’s release of vasopressin, an antidiuretic hormone the instructs the urinary tract to release as infrequently as possible in order to conserve body fluid (and is why alcohol makes you go to the bathroom more frequently than usual). Going to the bathroom more often causes an imbalance of electrolyte concentration – the cause of the majority of symptoms associated with kidney damage.

Types of Kidney Failure

There are two types of kidney failure: acute and chronic. Acute kidney failure is when the kidney suddenly loses its ability to function. This can be caused by an injury or other temporary impairment such as an infection or binge drinking. While it has the potential to be life-threatening in the relatively short time-frame that if occurs, this condition can be reversible.  

Chronic kidney failure, on the other, is the gradual deterioration of kidney function. Fluid or waste products accrue in the body over time and build up in the body. Unfortunately, the early stages of chronic disease are subtle and make little detection that there is an issue. By the time chronic kidney disease is detected, kidney function has likely already been significantly impaired. There are five stages of kidney failure, which are breaking up by the percentage of remaining kidney function:

  • Stage 1 – Over 90% of kidney function
  • Stage 2 – Between 89-60% of kidney function
  • Stage 3A – Between 59-45% of kidney function
  • Stage 3B – Between 44-30% of kidney function
  • Stage 4 – Between 29-15% of kidney function
  • Stage 5 – Less than 15% of kidney function

As the stage of kidney failure progresses, the glomerular filtration rate (GFR), the amount of blood the kidneys can filter in 1 minute, decreases as well, contributing to an even more rapid deterioration of symptoms.

Is It Kidney Disease or Kidney Failure?

The difference between kidney disease and kidney failure is the degree to which kidney function is impaired. Kidney failure is considered to be when 90% (or more) of kidney function is lost. A complete loss of kidney failure is called end-stage renal disease or ESRD). The only treatment options available are dialysis, when your blood is run through a machine to be cleaned, or a complete kidney transplant.

Signs & Symptoms of Kidney Failure

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Sleep problems
  • Frequent urination
  • Decreased mental sharpness
  • Muscle twitches and cramps
  • Swelling of limbs
  • Persistent itching
  • Chest pain (caused by fluid buildup in the heart)
  • Shortness of breath (caused by fluid buildup in the lungs)
  • High blood pressure (hypertension) that’s difficult to control
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