Kidney Stones Are on the Rise, Is our Lifestyle to Blame?

A recently published study in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology has found that not only is the prevalence of kidney stones increasing, but more people than ever are getting them. This includes children, women, and African Americans, who in the past have not been considered as high risk for the disease. But why? Could this be associated with increased obesity in our country, or the general dietary habits of the average American? Let’s take a closer look.

Kidney stones are small, hard deposits, typically composed of mineral and acid salts that form inside your kidneys. As one might expect, because urine is a vehicle for waste excretion, it is comprised of chemicals and wastes (including calcium, oxalate, urate, cysteine, xanthine and phosphate). When the urine is too concentrated, that is too little liquid and too much waste, crystals will begin to form. Over time, these crystals can join together and form a larger stone-like solid.

The study mentioned above analyzed more than 150,000 people in South Carolina who experienced kidney stones at some point between 1997 and 2012. What they found was that the frequency of kidney stones has increased by 16% over the years, and the biggest increases have been in children, women, and African Americans.

Risk factors for developing kidney stones include: being over age 40, being male, ingesting too little water, too much/little exercise, obesity, weight loss surgery, digestive diseases, and consuming a diet high in salt, protein or sugar, especially fructose.  Having a family history of kidney stones can also increase your risk of developing them; furthermore, if you have already experienced kidney stones, you are at an increased risk of developing more.  The average American’s diet, high in processed foods and high fructose corn syrup, could very well be the reason why stones have been on the rise over the last decade.

There is no single cause for kidney stones and often, the cause is unknown. There are, however, different types of kidney stones, which can help pinpoint the origin. Calcium stones (in the form of calcium oxalate or calcium phosphate), for example, are the most common form of kidney stone. Oxalate is a naturally occurring substance in food, so anything that increases levels of this compound, can increase the risk of a kidney stone. Uric acid stones often form in people who do not consume enough fluids, eat high protein diets or have gout. Struvite stones often form as the result of a kidney infection.

A kidney stone may not cause any issues until it moves around within the kidney or passes into the ureter — the tube connecting the kidney and bladder.   When a stone passes to the ureter, which is long and narrow, the pain is typically unavoidable.

 Some characteristic symptoms of kidney stones are as follows:

                Severe flank pain

                Intense, fluctuating and throbbing pain

                Pain on urination

                Blood in urine

                Nausea and vomiting

                Urgency to urinate

Can you prevent kidney stones?

Prevention of kidney stones can be as simple as a few dietary changes. Consuming more water during the day is one of the easiest measures you can take. Doctors recommend excreting about 2.6 quarts of urine every day. Depending on the severity of your kidney stones, you may want to measure and monitor your urine excretion. Consume fewer oxalate-rich foods, especially if you tend to form calcium oxalate stones. Such foods include chocolate, soy products, okra, beets, sweet potatoes, tea and nuts. Consume foods low in salt and animal protein. Speak with your doctor about your calcium intake via food and supplements before making any changes here. Furthermore, speak with your doctor about the possibility of prescription drugs to help with your kidney stones.