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A Healthy Body Leads to Healthy Kidneys

One in three American adults are at risk for kidney disease.

Kidneys filter 200 liters of blood a day, help regulate blood pressure, and direct red blood cell production, but they are also prone to disease: The National Kidney Foundation reports that one in three Americans is at risk for kidney disease due to diabetes, high blood pressure, or a family history of kidney failure. More than 30 million Americans already have kidney disease, but most don’t know it because there are often no symptoms until the disease has progressed.

March is National Kidney Month and a perfect time for all of us to learn more about the importance of our kidneys and our potential risk of developing kidney disease.

What They Are and What They Do

The kidneys are two bean-shaped organs, each about the size of a fist. They are located just below the rib cage, one on each side of the spine. Every day, the two kidneys filter about 120 to 150 quarts of blood to produce about 1 to 2 quarts of urine, composed of wastes and extra fluid. The urine flows from the kidneys to the bladder through tubes called ureters. The bladder stores urine. When the bladder empties, urine flows out of the body through a tube called the urethra, located at the bottom of the bladder.

The kidneys are critical organs in the human body. It’s possible to live with only one kidney, but without the function of the kidney the body requires extensive medical intervention to maintain health and wellbeing. This disease causes more than 590,000 cases of kidney failure throughout the nation, putting nearly 100,000 people in need of kidney transplants. Kidney disease is the ninth leading cause of death in the United States.

What Causes Kidney Disease?

Often called the “silent killer,” kidney disease can present no symptoms in its earliest phase. Education, awareness, lifestyle choices, and knowing what can cause your kidneys to fail can make a significant difference in preventing the disease. It develops when kidneys lose the ability to remove waste and maintain fluid and chemical balances in the body. The severity of chronic kidney disease (CKD) depends on how well the kidneys filter wastes from the blood. It can progress quickly or take many years to develop.

Diabetes is the number one cause of CKD, with high blood pressure being the second leading cause; one in three with diabetes and one in five with high blood pressure will develop kidney disease.

While there’s no cure for kidney disease, the progression of the disease can be slowed and managed by controlling diabetes and high blood pressure. If a person is diagnosed with CKD, regular medical supervision is important. Medications and lifestyle changes can slow the progression of the disease. These include:

  • Keeping your blood pressure stable.
  • If you’re diabetic, stay in your target blood sugar range as much as possible.
  • Increase your activity and exercise; which can help control blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Meet with your dietitian to create a “kidney-healthy” eating plan.

Early detection can make a difference in preventing kidney disease so it’s important to know if you’re at risk. You can take this online kidney quiz offered by the National Kidney Foundation.

Symptoms of Kidney Disease

Signs and symptoms of CKD develop over time if kidney damage progresses slowly. Signs and symptoms of the disease may include:

  • Nausea;
  • Vomiting;
  • Loss of appetite;
  • Fatigue and weakness;
  • Sleep problems;
  • Changes in how much you urinate;
  • Decreased mental sharpness;
  • Muscle twitches and cramps;
  • Swelling of feet and ankles;
  • Persistent itching;
  • Chest pain, if fluid builds up around the lining of the heart;
  • Shortness of breath, if fluid builds up in the lungs; and
  • High blood pressure (hypertension) that’s difficult to control.

Signs and symptoms of kidney disease are often non-specific, meaning they can also be caused by other illnesses. Because your kidneys are highly adaptable and able to compensate for lost function, signs and symptoms may not appear until irreversible damage has occurred.

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above and think it might be due to kidney issues, don’t hesitate to call your doctor. The only way to find out for sure if you have CKD is through specific blood and urine tests. These tests include measurement of both the creatinine level in the blood and protein in the urine.

Keeping Your Body Strong and Healthy

The National Kidney Foundation lists just a few of the choices you can make to help your kidneys and your body do the best job it can.

Diet and Nutrition

The foods you eat and drink can help or hurt your body so be sure to eat a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, breads, meats, and dairy products. If you have kidney disease there may be some foods and drinks you should avoid. Your kidneys help to keep a balance of nutrients in your body, such as salt and calcium, so eating too much salt is a bad idea. Talk to your doctor or a dietitian about what food is right for you.


Your body likes to run, jump, and play. Exercise will keep your body in good shape and getting enough exercise is important—it keeps you strong inside and out.

Alcohol and Cigarettes

When you have kidney disease you need to be even more careful about what you put into your body. When your kidneys are damaged they’re not able to filter your blood as well as they should. This means cigarettes and alcohol are a big no-no.

Take charge of your health by empowering yourself with information about CKD signs, symptoms, treatment, and prevention. Doing so can help you live a long, healthy life free of kidney complications.

Dr. David Herminghuysen, at CCHC New Bern Internal Medicine Specialists, is board certified in Internal Medicine and Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism. He is currently accepting new patients and would be happy to discuss any concerns you may have about your kidney health and provide any education materials you might need. To make an appointment, call 252-633-5333.

(Sources: National Institutes of Health; National Kidney Foundation; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Mayo Clinic; American Association of Kidney Patients; and Unicity Eldercare.)