While plenty of us are familiar with alcohol’s effects on the liver, what about the long-term effects of alcohol on the kidneys? Moderate drinking here and there doesn’t do much harm, but people with more severe drinking habits may increase their risk of an addiction to alcohol and kidney disease, as well. Everyone who chooses to drink alcohol should be aware of the alcohol’s effects on the kidneys and why it’s worth it to stop while you’re ahead.
To understand the long-term effects of alcohol on the kidneys, you have to know how they work. The kidneys are two bean-shaped organs – about the size of a fist – located just below the rib cage on either side of your spine. Healthy kidneys filter about half a cup of blood per minute, removing waste and excess water to create urine.
Your urine then flows from your kidneys to your bladder through two thin tubes of muscle called ureters, which are located on either side of your bladder. This is where your urine is stored. Along with your bladder and ureters, the kidneys make up your urinary tract.
The roles of the kidneys are to remove waste and excess fluid from your body, regulate your pH balance, and produce hormones. Your kidneys are also responsible for removing acid produced by cells and maintaining a good balance of water, salts, and minerals in your blood.
Each of your kidneys is made up of millions of nephrons or filtering units. Each nephron contains a glomerulus and a tubule. There are millions of glomerulus, collectively called glomeruli, on each kidney. The glomerulus filters your blood to remove smaller molecules, wastes, and fluids and send them through the tubule. The blood vessel that runs along the tubule then reabsorbs most of the water, minerals, and nutrients your body needs while removing excess acid from the blood. The remaining fluids are released in urine. Blood is also released from the renal artery, which is a large blood vessel that branches out into smaller ones until it reaches the nephrons in your kidneys. Once your blood is filtered through glomeruli, it flows into your kidney through the renal artery. Your kidneys filter about 150 quarts of blood per day, 1 or 2 of which become urine.
As you’ve just read, the kidneys have important jobs as filters for harmful substances in our bodies. They filter out the bad stuff from our blood and allow us to flush everything out through urine. They also help regulate our blood pressure and even produce a hormone that plays a role in red blood cell production. But these necessary processes can be easily impacted by heavy alcohol consumption. Alcohol affects the kidneys by making them work harder to filter your blood, making them hold onto less liquid than normal, and spiking your blood pressure. Excessive or chronic drinking means that you’re constantly pushing the kidneys to work at their fullest, along with flushing your system with alcohol and toxins.
Alcohol is also a diuretic, which means that it suppresses a hormone that tells your kidneys to hold more water. As a result, more urine is passed, meaning more trips to the bathroom and an increased risk for severe dehydration and low electrolytes. Subsequently, you’ll end up feeling light-headed, dizzy, fatigued, and you may have a faster heart and breathing rate.
Alcohol abuse can also lead to high blood pressure, which can have a direct impact on the kidneys, as well. High blood pressure constricts and narrows your blood vessels, eventually damaging and weakening them throughout your body, including the ones in your kidneys. This constriction reduces blood flow. If the blood vessels in your kidneys are damaged, their functions may be impaired, meaning that they won’t be able to filter your blood or remove all the wastes and extra fluids from your body. Having extra fluids in your blood vessels can further increase your blood pressure and further damage the kidney, creating a vicious cycle.
Experiencing kidney pain after drinking alcohol can also occur if you have liver disease, kidney infection, dehydration, ureteropelvic junction (UPJ) obstruction, hydronephrosis (swollen kidneys), or gastritis. Because alcohol targets organs of the body responsible for filtration – such as the kidneys and livers – it’s always safest to undergo a medically monitored detox for alcohol to clean out your system while receiving 24-hour care for withdrawals.
A kidney stone is a hard mass formed in the kidneys that are made up of minerals and acid salts that clump together in concentrated urine. Passing kidney stones is a notoriously painful process. Alcohol abuse can also contribute to kidney stones by causing dehydration. Alcohol affects the kidneys’ ability to maintain a healthy balance of water, minerals, and electrolytes in the body, impairing its ability to filter the urine, increasing your chances of developing a kidney stone.
Not only is alcohol bad for your kidneys, but it’s also damaging to your liver, heart, brain, and other vital organs of the body. Alcohol is an addictive central nervous system depressant that, when consumed in high doses, produces sedation and a sense of well-being (a buzz). Therefore, chronic and heavy drinking can result in alcoholism or alcohol addiction, which can have an impact on your health, finances, career, and relationships.
If you or someone close is struggling with a drinking problem, don’t wait to get help. Faith in Recovery offers comprehensive faith-based recovery programs that focus on the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of addiction recovery.