What Your Kidneys Are Trying To Tell You About Balance
Humans are typically born with two bean-shaped kidneys, each the size of a computer mouse located on either side of the spine, and each with a huge role to play in maintaining health. The kidneys are the organs associated with Libra, astrological sign of the scales and of balance, which the kidneys maintain by regulating the body’s fluid volume (a key factor in blood pressure), mineral composition, and acidity. In Ayurveda, kidney health is associated with metabolic balance, while chronic kidney disease is the result of an imbalance between the rakta (blood) and meda (fat) dhatus (tissues).
Why the Kidneys are Important
Recognizing the kidneys as symbols of balance resonates with me. I’ve been treating patients with chronic kidney disease for almost 50 years and have recently published a book called “Surviving Kidney Disease: True Stories of Love, Courage, Hope and Heroism and a Roadmap for Prevention”.
Despite my understanding of the kidneys, I never fully understood the importance of maintaining balance until I was diagnosed with lung cancer five years ago. This sudden health crisis brought my former life to an immediate halt and prompted me to look deeper to see where it had been so out of balance that a life-threatening illness could develop. I undertook a process I called “stress mapping” and realized that I had, indeed, made choices throughout my life that intensified the stress my body had to deal with; to the point that it eventually became overwhelmed. I began to consider my kidney disease patients and realized that for them too, stress played a major role—perhaps even triggering the development of the disease.
Chronic kidney disease (CKD) rates have been rising steadily for as long as I’ve been practicing medicine — and skyrocketing in the last couple of decades, tracking the rise in obesity and diabetes, and also the increasing stress of our non-stop lifestyles. CKD already affects some 40 million Americans and will kill more of them this year than either breast or prostate cancer. Clearly, our kidneys are trying to tell us something: collectively, our lives are seriously out of balance. Healthy bodies maintain what some endocrinologists call “perfect metabolic balance.” New findings from the study of psychoneuroimmunology demonstrate the role that the brain plays in maintaining a healthy immune system, along with a sense of joy, positivity, happiness, creativity, and inner calm.
The Role of Stress
Although our minds and bodies work together to try to maintain these healthy states, the 21st-century stress epidemic increasingly overwhelms our bodies’ best efforts. The constant demands to “go, go, go” leave our bodies—and minds—with precious little time to rest and recuperate. Adrenal stress — and systemic oxidative stress — can follow. Stress stimulates the hypothalamus and pituitary gland to deliver ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone), which stimulates our two adrenal glands, located (appropriately enough) just above each of our kidneys, to deliver cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.
These chemicals cause blood sugar and blood pressure to rise, our hearts to beat faster, our digestion, cell repair, and other not urgently needed functions to shut down, we begin to sweat—in short, we become physiologically ready to overcome danger. This short-term stress response works well to enable us to outrun a predator or even rise to more modern and mundane challenges, like ace an exam, a job interview, or an important sports competition. However, if the stress continues unabated, these physiological functions outlast their usefulness and begin to wreak havoc with healthy biological processes.
Anxiety and insomnia can ensue, and we may turn to other methods of coping to get some stress relief. The most common of these are food, alcohol and other drugs, working too much, playing too little, trying too hard. We may become depressed, overweight, addicted, or obese. These conditions catapult us further down the death spiral, leading to adult-onset diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease, and even kidney failure. Intense or chronic unrelieved stress can also flip epigenetic switches, triggering any inherited predisposition to certain diseases, including autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, and many more. (For more on this topic, I recommend Dr. Gabor Maté’s wonderful book, written in layperson’s terms, “When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection”.)
The kidneys, responsible for maintaining fluid balance, pH balance, and the balance of various minerals in our bloodstream, can also remind us to balance the stress in our lives. I recently visited a Masai village in Kenya where I observed lean, hard-working, muscular, smiling, and seemingly quite contented human beings who were proud to share aspects of their ancient culture with me. They had strong family bonds and strong friendships. When they danced and sang, they literally jumped with joy. Yet, they owned few possessions—just their cow-wattle homes, cows and goats, and little else. They revered nature, the animals that surrounded them, and the magnificent sunrises and sunsets.
Their diet was simple—monotonous by our standards, but high in protein and fiber. Processed food had not yet reached them. Nor had diabetes, obesity, mental illness, hypertension, cancer, or kidney failure. They shared characteristics seen in the world’s healthiest and longest-lived populations. From my own 50 years of medical practice, reading the medical literature, discussions with colleagues, and reviewing the charts of thousands of patients, I feel certain that stress is a prime factor in causing such diseases as systemic lupus, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, cancer, chronic kidney disease, and even End-Stage Renal Failure. Stress may well be the #1 cause of premature death throughout the world because it underlies so many other diseases.
Of course, the most difficult question is, what can we do to manage and minimize the constant stress that most of us experience daily? Although we can’t return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, we can nevertheless learn a great deal from the Masai, who don’t need expensive cars, smartphones, or impressive houses to feel happy and successful.
How to Achieve Balance in a Stressful World
We can look to our own culture for role models, too. Henry David Thoreau, for example, encouraged his peers to “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” Here are some suggestions that I have found helpful for balancing the stress and well-being in my life. Adopt as many of them as feel comfortable to you. (In other words, don’t add them to your “to-do” list and end up feeling stressed that you haven’t gotten to them all!)
- Eat less and move more. Enjoy a diet that is mostly fruits and vegetables and eat slowly so your brain can signal that you are getting full.
- Avoid processed food and highly glycemic foods (those that spike blood sugar) such as bread, potatoes, rice, and pasta. Shop the outer aisles of grocery stores to avoid processed foods.
- Buy organic whenever possible to avoid ingesting pesticides.
- Exercise daily. Get up and move while you’re watching TV.
- Practice yoga, meditation, or another serenity-inducing, contemplative activity.
- Learn to breathe correctly, which can be a meditation in itself. Slow your breathing, allowing air to slowly fill and empty the lungs. This turns off the sympathetic nervous system that has been working overtime because of stress. Practice slow breathing whenever you feel stress.
- Enjoy nature. Take a hike, a bike ride, a walk; spend time on the water paddle-boarding, surfing, sailing, or diving; watch the sunrise or sunset.
- Enjoy family and friends. Cook and eat meals together. Turn off your devices and enjoy face-to-face communication.
- Share your feelings with an empathetic listener.
- Introduce stillness to your children’s lives. Teach them to understand breath and to nose breath slowly for a couple of minutes a day—perhaps as you’re tucking them into bed at night.
- Moderate your consumption of media, including social media. Studies have shown that social media, ironically, increases the sense of isolation because people compare themselves unfavorably to others.
- Take a vacation, even if it’s a stay-cation before you get so stressed that it’s too late to relax.
- Identify the sources of stress in your life and strategize ways to reduce them. Do you really need a bigger house—and house note? A new car—and car note? Can you take public transportation, ride-share, or even bicycle to reduce the stress of your commute? Can you work from home one day a week? Might you and your kids cut down on the number of activities you’re committed to? Less sometimes really is more!
- Try stress-mapping your own life—before you receive a serious diagnosis. The process simply involves examining your life for times of intensified stress—divorce, an accident, a crisis at work or home—and taking extra steps to treat yourself kindly to help your body compensate.
- Be good to yourself in ways that don’t involve food, alcohol, shopping, or other drugs. Take a nap or a bath. Give yourself a facial, or a pedicure. Get a massage. Pet the dog. Write in your journal. Tend your garden. Consciously take time to slow down and look around.
- Incorporate ritual into your life. The Jewish Sabbath ceremony, for example, celebrates the difference between light and dark, work and rest. Other cultures have their own rituals. Giving thanks before a meal is a time-honored ritual that many have abandoned, but even if one doesn’t hold a traditional view of God or religion, pausing to appreciate one’s meal is worthwhile. Appreciation appreciates, and rituals can serve to connect us with a long line of people and traditions, reminding us that we aren’t alone and we don’t have to “do it all by ourselves.”
- Create your own rituals—lighting candles for Sunday dinner; reading a bedtime story before turning out the light; carving the Halloween pumpkin together and roasting the seeds; decorating the house for holidays. Teach your rituals to your children.
- Let your kidneys serve as reminders that a healthy life is lived in balance.
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