Effects of Alcohol on the Kidneys
Alcohol is one of the most commonly consumed beverages in the United States, despite being a potent toxin. Excessive alcohol use has two important consequences:
- As the liver works to detoxify alcohol, it accumulates damage that is passed on to the kidneys and other organs.
- Normal metabolism stalls, leading to reduced organ function and overall health.
The kidneys are a key component of the excretory system and are responsible for filtering blood to remove cellular waste, metabolic byproducts and excess water, which becomes urine. Kidneys play a critical role in controlling blood pressure, repopulating the red blood cell pool, and driving hormone production. While the liver is the primary metabolizer of alcohol, the kidneys have an indirect role and, as such, can be affected by excess alcohol consumption.
The negative ramifications of alcohol use disorder on the liver are well characterized, but a direct connection between alcohol and kidney disease is still an area of active research. What is known is that alcohol-induced damage on the liver and cardiovascular system impact kidney function and contribute to kidney damage. For example, liver damage caused by excessive alcohol consumption increases blood pressure, and high blood pressure is conclusively linked to kidney disease.
Kidney Disease and Failure
A substantial amount of evidence exists that indirectly links excessive alcohol use to damaged kidneys. Organ systems including the liver, the gastrointestinal tract and even muscle tissue are connected to the kidneys. Because alcohol is toxic, when these organ systems are exposed to it, they become inflamed and send pro-inflammatory molecules to the kidneys. Over time, these molecules may accumulate in the kidneys and cause damage that leads to kidney disease and, eventually, kidney failure.
Dehydration is the major cause of kidney stones, and binge drinking or chronic alcohol use can cause dehydration. In addition, excessive alcohol use can reduce the pH of urine, which promotes the development of a particular type of kidney stones (uric acid stones). Thus, while there is no direct link between the consumption of alcohol and kidney stones, drinking can contribute to the formation of kidney stones.
The link between alcohol use disorder and liver disease is irrefutable. The liver is the primary site of alcohol metabolism, so it is the first organ to be affected by excessive drinking and it sustains the most damage. More than 90% of people who consume 4–5 drinks per day for a decade will develop liver steatosis, which is the initial stage of liver disease. People who regularly binge drink also have a high risk of steatosis.
Continued alcohol use can lead to liver fibrosis and, eventually, the terminal stage of liver disease, cirrhosis. In 2018, the World Health Organization estimated that nearly 50% of deaths attributed to cirrhosis of the liver were alcohol related. Alcoholic liver disease has become the most common cause of liver transplants in the United States.
Because the kidneys receive input from the liver, liver dysfunction affects the kidneys. The most likely links between alcoholic liver disease and kidney failure are reduced circulatory flow from the liver to the kidneys and the presence of toxic byproducts of alcohol metabolism that accumulate in the kidneys.
High Blood Pressure
Although not as clear-cut as alcoholic liver disease, a direct effect of excessive alcohol consumption on the cardiovascular system has been well characterized. Hypertension (high blood pressure), coronary heart disease and stroke have all been linked to alcohol use disorders. Approximately 20% of deaths attributable to alcohol use disorders are due to alcohol-induced cardiovascular diseases. The primary link between alcohol use disorders and kidney failure is alcohol-induced high blood pressure; high blood pressure is the second most common cause of kidney failure.
Preventing Alcohol-Induced Kidney Issues
The most effective way to prevent alcoholism and alcohol-induced kidney damage is to avoid alcohol or to follow alcohol consumption guidelines. In the United States, dietary guidelines define moderate alcohol use as “up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.” There are steps that can be taken to improve kidney health as well. A common expression among urologists is, “Dilution is the solution to the pollution,” which means that increased water (not alcohol) intake is the best way to make sure your kidneys are getting flushed out regularly and staying healthy.
Alcohol Abuse Treatment
Despite its popularity, alcohol is an addictive drug, and alcohol use disorder can be challenging to overcome. The detox and withdrawal periods are often uncomfortable and, in some cases, can be dangerous. Professional rehab programs make the early days of recovery easier by limiting exposure to triggers, providing mental and emotional support, and offering medical detox and treatment to mitigate the severity of withdrawal symptoms. The Recovery Village Ridgefield is a premier alcohol treatment center in Washington State, conveniently located close to the cities of Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington and Tacoma, Washington.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an alcohol use disorder, The Recovery Village Ridgefield can help. We have an experienced team that can help address aspects of both your short- and long-term recovery. Services include medical detox, residential and outpatient treatment, and aftercare programs that are designed to help you maintain lifelong sobriety. Call today to learn how to take your first step toward recovery.
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Loughlin, Kevin R. “What causes kidney stones (and what to do).” Harvard Health Blog, May 2019. Accessed August 23, 2019.
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