What are Kidney Stones?
Kidney stones are not actual stones, but if you’ve ever passed one, it may have felt like a rock pierced through you. Kidney stones are usually small. In fact, some are as fine as a grain of salt, but others are closer to the size of a pearl. They form when there is an excess of salts and minerals but not enough water inside the kidneys (x). Approximately one million Americans develop kidney stones each year, and about 10 percent of the U.S. population will develop one in his or her lifetime (x).
The medical terms for kidney stones are renal lithiasis or nephrolithiasis. They often form in concentrated urine, which allows the minerals to form crystals that then stick together (x). A kidney stone generally only causes pain once it starts to move out of the kidneys into a position where it can be felt, such as blocking urine from entering a ureter. Kidney pain can be a result of various other possible conditions, including an infection, cyst or tumor (x).
A kidney stone might be smooth-sided or rough, yellow or brown. While men and women can both get stones, men are about twice as likely as women to experience them (x). Although uncommon, they are sometimes also seen in children, and it is usually due to heredity or an abnormality in the urinary tract (x).
Passing a kidney stone can be painful (sometimes extremely so), but so long as the problem is taken care of, it usually does not cause lasting damage. However, if a kidney stone gets lodged in the urinary tract, it may cause an infection (x).
Kidney Stones vs. Gallstones
Kidney stones and gallstones are similar in that they are both a buildup of excess compounds in an organ, and dysfunction usually results. You may have no symptoms or you may experience pain with both; likewise, in both instances, the stones must be removed in order to restore proper function. The differences between a gallstone and a kidney stone are that gallstones are made of a buildup of bile. With kidney stones, though, the stones are usually made of calcium. Another difference is that if the gallbladder needs to be removed, you can live without it. However, you cannot survive without your kidneys.
Symptoms of Kidney Stones
Frequent Urination and Pain
One of the most common early signs of a kidney stone is frequent urination. Back or side pain that may or may not radiate down into the groin is another common symptom of kidney stones. The pain may be dull, sharp, or throbbing. Depending on whether the stone moves around, the pain may come and go. Men may also feel pain radiate into the scrotum and testicles. Kidney stones can scrape along the kidneys or ureters, causing them to bleed (x). Because several of these symptoms are similar to those of sexually transmitted diseases, it is important to obtain a prompt diagnosis.
Nausea and Vomiting
Nausea and vomiting are also common symptoms associated with kidney stones. Either one can be due to the intense pain they can cause, but it may also be due to the body trying to eliminate toxins. It is the kidneys’ job to eliminate waste from the body, and when they do not function properly, your body gets them out any way it can. Vomiting causes other problems too, such as dehydration and the potential for nutritional deficits, which can become even more troublesome if you have other conditions, such as diabetes (x).
The urine may be cloudy and smell pungent or fishy. This sharp stench is very different from the usual smell of urine and it is due to the concentration of toxins in the urine. It is these toxins that create crystals in the urine and may eventually turn into a kidney stone. You may also experience fever and chills as the body tries to combat the infection (x).
Causes of Kidney Stones
Dehydration is a common cause of kidney stones. Without taking in enough water or if you sweat a lot, your urine may be darker in color when it should be clear or a pale yellow (x). Aim for eight cups of water per day — 10 if you’ve experienced this issue previously.
Vitamin C Intake
While caffeine may have a beneficial effect on kidney stone formation, excess intake of vitamin C may lead to the formation of kidney stones (x). Because vitamin C offers health benefits, many people believe that more is better, but this is not necessarily the case. Men only need about 90 milligrams per day, and women only require around 75 milligrams (x).
While moderate alcohol consumption should not cause kidney stones to form, binge drinking has been linked to kidney stones because the amount of uric acid increases when a person consumes an excessive amount of alcohol. Alcohol also affects liver function, which is directly related to proper kidney function. Excessive alcohol consumption can cause liver failure and kidney failure (x). Drink in moderation, and be sure to drink plenty of water.
Vitamin D Levels
While very high doses of vitamin D may cause kidney stones to form because the vitamin is involved with calcium absorption, studies show that a deficiency of vitamin D can also increase your risk (x).
Kidney stones are fairly common in pregnancy, especially during the second and third trimester. The increased risk may be due to insufficient fluid intake, the extra calcium expecting mothers ingest, and the increased likelihood of developing a urinary tract infection due to extra pressure on the bladder. The symptoms are the same for pregnant women as for anyone else: pain during urination, pain in the back or side and blood in the urine. Note that cloudy urine in the absence of other symptoms can be normal during pregnancy and does not automatically mean there is a problem (x).
Various other factors can contribute to the development of kidney stones. These factors include:
- Excess sodium
- Excess animal protein
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Gastric bypass surgery
- Renal tubular acidosis
- Genetic disorders
- Certain medications, including some antibiotics and diuretics
Supplements for Kidney Health
Potassium citrate is a mix of potassium salt and citric acid. It is often a useful treatment for kidney stones, and it can also improve bone and heart health. Potassium citrate may be able to rebalance urine acidity and lower the risk of kidney stone formation (x).
Aloe vera contains over 75 vitamins, minerals and other active compounds that are beneficial for the body, and the kidneys in particular, including aloemannan. While more research is necessary, some studies show that aloe significantly decreased oxalate in study subjects (x). Those with kidney or heart disease should not take aloe vera. Women who are pregnant or taking birth control pills should also avoid taking aloe.
Licorice root helps to detoxify the system, which protects the kidneys and liver, as well as offering a boost to overall immunity. Compounds in licorice have been found in studies to fight inflammation and help the kidneys to function better (x). Take 600 mg daily, or as directed by your doctor.
Calcium citrate is a calcium supplement that is easier to absorb than some other types. It has also been shown in studies to prevent the formation of kidney stones (x). A common dose is 2,400 mg, taken daily.
The Bottom Line
Kidney stones are common and sometimes painful, but they usually pass without doing any lasting damage. While some form due to genetic factors, a healthy diet, drinking plenty of fluids and taking supplements such as calcium citrate, potassium citrate or licorice root can help dissolve kidney stones or prevent them from forming in the first place.