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Alcohol and Health

How Does Alcohol Affect Kidney Health?

June 21, 2023
19 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 21, 2023
19 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 21, 2023
19 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 21, 2023
19 min read
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Reframe Content Team
June 21, 2023
19 min read

It always seems to happen: you meet some friends for a happy hour and end up having one drink too many. You go to bed way more tipsy than you would have liked, and when you wake up, you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. But it’s not just the headache, nausea, and brain fog — it’s a weird pain deep in your abdomen. Is it possible that your kidneys are actually in pain from drinking alcohol?

Does alcohol affect kidneys? What does kidney pain after drinking mean? And can alcohol cause kidney stones? In this post, we’ll explore why our kidneys are so important and how alcohol affects their functioning. We’ll also offer tips for enhancing our kidney health. Let’s get started!

How Do Our Kidneys Work?

Before we dive into how alcohol affects our kidneys, it’s helpful to look at how our kidneys work and why they’re so important. We don’t often think about them, but these two small organs are as vital to our health as our heart and lungs, performing complex and vital functions that keep the rest of our body in balance.

Shaped like kidney beans (hence the name!), our kidneys are located deep in our abdomen, on either side of our spine. Consider them a filtration system: their main job is to remove waste products and excess fluid from our body.

Here’s how it works: every minute, about one liter of blood — or one-fifth of all the blood pumped by the heart — enters the kidneys through our arteries. This blood is cleaned by passing through millions of tiny blood filters, called nephrons. Any waste materials or excess fluid is passed into the bladder where it is stored as urine, while the newly-filtered blood returns to our bloodstream through our veins.

This process helps keep us alive: without a filtration system, we would poison ourselves with a buildup of toxins and waste. Our kidneys work hard day in and day out to prevent this from happening. In fact, every 24 hours, our kidneys filter and return to the bloodstream about 200 quarts of fluid. Approximately two quarts are eliminated from the body in the form of urine, while the remainder is retained in the body.

In addition to filtering the blood, our kidneys have 3 other important functions:

  • Regulates hormones: Our kidneys make and regulate important hormones that help to control blood pressure, red blood cell production, and calcium metabolism.
  • Balances body fluid: Our kidneys help ensure our bodily fluids stay at the correct level for our body to function properly.
  • Controls body chemistry: Our kidneys also help control body chemistry by regulating the amount of sodium, potassium, acid content, and other chemicals moving around our body.

Interestingly, while most people are born with two kidneys, a person can live a normal and long life with only one healthy kidney. If one kidney is lost, the other kidney can increase its working capacity and provide up to 75% of normal kidney function. This is why people can donate a kidney to someone who needs it.

Alcohol's Impact on the Kidneys

How Does Alcohol Affect Kidneys?

Now that we know how important and hard working our kidneys are, we can ask the next important question: does alcohol affect kidneys? Simply put: yes! This might not be all that surprising, given that alcohol is a toxin. After all, it’s their job to filter out toxic substances. But let’s take a closer look at 4 specific ways alcohol affects our kidneys:

1. How are alcohol and kidney disease connected?

One significant way alcohol affects our kidneys is by making it more difficult for them to function effectively. For instance, alcohol impairs the structure and function of the nephrons — those functional units of our kidneys responsible for filtering waste products and excess fluids. This can lead to a condition called acute kidney injury, which occurs when the toxins from alcohol build up in our body quickly and our kidneys can’t maintain the right fluid balance. Binge drinking in particular places a great strain on the kidneys and can cause acute kidney damage.

Furthermore, alcohol can affect kidney function by causing or exacerbating other health conditions that harm the kidneys. For example, alcohol is a known risk factor for high blood pressure, a leading cause of kidney damage. Additionally, excessive alcohol consumption can contribute to liver damage and disease, which can, in turn, impair kidney function. Furthermore, alcohol can interfere with the body's ability to regulate fluids and electrolytes, leading to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances that can strain the kidneys.

Finally let’s dispel a myth. Because alcohol is a diuretic, some might think it helps “flush out” the kidneys, but that’s not the case. In fact, it makes them work overtime while depleting the body of important nutrients and damaging the kidneys in the process.

So is beer — an especially potent diuretic — good for your kidneys? The answer is no. Just like other types of alcohol, beer can put unnecessary strain on the kidneys.

2. What does kidney pain after drinking mean?

It could mean a kidney infection. Alcohol can also increase the risk of kidney infections, which typically start in the bladder and travel up the ureters to the kidneys. Alcohol impairs the immune system, making it more difficult for our body to fight off infections. Additionally, because alcohol can cause dehydration, this can lead to a higher concentration of bacteria in the urinary tract, increasing the risk of a urinary tract infection (UTI). UTIs that spread to the bladder may cause kidney pain and lead to a kidney infection.

3. What are the first signs of kidney damage from alcohol that results in CKD?

Excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to an increased risk of developing chronic kidney disease (CKD), a long-term condition characterized by a gradual loss of kidney function. The likelihood is greater for individuals who already have other risk factors for the disease, such as high blood pressure or diabetes. Smokers who are heavy drinkers have about five times more chance of developing CKD than people who don’t smoke or drink alcohol to excess.

What are the first signs? While the symptoms below can be signs of many different conditions, they are some of the typical ones for CKD:

  • Changes in urination. This may include urinating more or less frequently, noticing blood in the urine, or having urine that is foamy or bubbly.
  • Swelling. Fluid retention can cause swelling in the legs, ankles, feet, face, or hands.
  • Muscle cramps. Electrolyte imbalances caused by impaired kidney function can lead to muscle cramps.
  • Pain in the back or sides. Some people with CKD experience pain in the back or side related to the affected kidneys.

Alcohol can also interfere with the effectiveness of medications used to manage kidney disease and its complications. For example, alcohol can reduce the effectiveness of blood pressure medications, making it more difficult to control high blood pressure, a leading cause of CKD.

4. Does alcohol cause kidney stones?

While alcohol consumption isn’t directly linked to kidney stones (hardened deposits formed from minerals and salts in the kidneys), research suggests it can contribute to their development and progression. They can be incredibly painful and sometimes require surgical intervention.

Since alcohol is dehydrating, it increases the concentration of minerals in our urine, which elevates the risk of stone formation. This risk is especially high during instances of binge drinking, which quickly depletes the body's water content. This is also why we might experience kidney pain after a night of heavy drinking.

Alcohol can also affect the balance of acid and alkaline substances in the urine. High levels of uric acid can lead to the formation of uric acid stones. Regular and heavy consumption of alcohol, especially beer and spirits, is associated with higher uric acid levels in the body.

Furthermore, alcohol can exacerbate the symptoms of kidney stones. It can increase the heart rate, leading to faster blood flow and potentially pushing the stones into the ureters, causing severe pain and possible obstruction.

What Are the Signs of Kidney Damage From Alcohol?

It’s important to be aware of all the ways alcohol can affect our kidneys, as we might develop certain symptoms over time that indicate kidney damage — particularly if we’re consuming alcohol heavily over a long period of time. Plus, issues affecting the kidneys can quickly affect the rest of our body, potentially causing problems in multiple organs.

Watch for these signs that indicate we might have alcohol-related kidney damage:

  • Fatigue
  • Swelling of the legs, ankles, and feet due to fluid retention
  • Loss of appetite
  • Change in urine (difficult or painful urine or blood in urine)
  • Kidney pain
  • A high fever and kidney pain

Kidney pain may be felt in the upper or lower back or between the buttocks and lower ribs. The pain may be felt immediately after consuming alcohol or after we’ve stopped drinking. If we’re experiencing any of the above symptoms or suspect we might have kidney damage from alcohol use, it’s important to contact a medical health professional.

Can Kidneys Recover From Alcohol-Related Damage?

So, how is kidney damage treated — is there a cure? Well, that depends. Acute kidney damage caused by binge drinking will typically resolve itself within a few days. The damage can usually be reversed by stopping drinking and allowing our kidneys to recover. Keep in mind, however, that repeated episodes of binge drinking may cause irreversible damage.

As for chronic kidney disease, sadly there’s no cure. Treatment usually involves helping relieve symptoms and preventing it from getting worse. Our doctor might instruct us to manage our blood pressure levels, follow a kidney-friendly diet, and get adequate exercise.

Depending on the severity of our condition, doctors also might prescribe medications to manage symptoms. In extreme cases, CKD can lead to kidney failure, which may require a kidney transplant or dialysis — a mode of therapy in which a machine is used to perform the job of the kidneys. Untreated, complete kidney failure from alcohol will result in death.

Tips To Keep Our Kidneys Healthy

The good news is that we have more control over the health of our kidneys than we might think. It’s worth making certain lifestyle changes, given how vital these organs are to our survival. In addition to limiting our alcohol consumption or eliminating it entirely, there are 5 ways we can keep our kidneys healthy and functioning optimally:

  • Stay hydrated: As we’ve learned, dehydration can stress our kidneys and prevent them from properly doing their job. Water is important for all bodily systems and organs, but particularly for our kidneys, as it helps clear out sodium and toxins. Aim to consume at least six 8-oz glasses of water per day. Those of us who are physically active should consume more.
  • Make healthy food choices. Our kidneys process everything we eat or drink, so what we put into our body matters! Try following a low-fat, healthy diet that has plenty of fruits and vegetables. Limit your sugar, salt, and caffeine intake. For instance, experts recommend aiming for less than 2,000 milligrams of sodium each day and having less than 10% of your daily calories come from added sugars. Keep in mind that over time, a bad diet can lead to high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes — all of which are hard on our kidneys.
  • Stay physically active. Just like a healthy diet, exercise helps prevent conditions like diabetes and heart disease that can lead to kidney damage. It can also help us maintain a healthy weight. Aim for at least 30 minutes of activity most days — even if it’s just a brisk walk. If you’re starting out, start with just a 10 minute walk and add more time as you get more comfortable.
  • Monitor medication consumption. We should also avoid medications or substances that could be toxic to our kidneys. For instance, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, can damage our kidneys if we take them regularly for chronic pain, headaches, or arthritis. According to the National Kidney Foundation, these medications shouldn’t be taken for more than 10 days for pain or more than 3 days for a fever.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking increases our risk of kidney cancer and damages blood vessels, slowing blood flow to the kidneys. If we stop smoking, our risk will drop — but it will likely take many years to return to the level of a person who’s never smoked. So if you’ve never smoked, don’t start now!

The Bottom Line

Our kidneys play a vital role in keeping us healthy and alive. They filter out toxins and waste and remove excess fluid from our body. Chronic, long-term alcohol consumption can damage our kidneys, leading to chronic kidney disease or failure. Even a single episode of binge drinking can put stress on our kidneys and cause acute kidney damage. Some of the best things we can do to keep our kidneys healthy include limiting our alcohol consumption, drinking plenty of water, eating a healthy diet, staying physically active, limiting our intake of over-the-counter pain relievers, and not smoking.

If you want to give your kidneys a boost by cutting back on your alcohol consumption, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people reduce their alcohol consumption and form healthier lifestyle habits.

Summary FAQs

1. What do our kidneys do, and why are they so important?

Our kidneys are a vital organ: we wouldn’t survive without them. They act as a filtration system for our body, removing toxins, waste, and excess fluid. They also help make certain hormones, balance our body fluid, and regulate the amount of sodium and electrolytes in our body. 

2. How does alcohol affect our kidneys?

Alcohol can prevent our kidneys from doing their job effectively, making it more difficult for them to filter out toxins and waste. Over time, heavy, long-term consumption of alcohol can damage our kidneys and lead to chronic kidney disease or failure. Alcohol can also increase our risk of kidney infections and contribute to the development of kidney stones. 

3. What are the signs of alcohol-related kidney damage?

Signs that indicate we might have alcohol-related kidney damage include fatigue, swelling of the legs, ankles or feet, loss of appetite, difficult or painful urination, blood in urine, and kidney pain.

4. What are some tips for keeping our kidneys healthy?

We can help our kidneys function optimally by limiting our alcohol consumption, staying hydrated, eating a healthy diet, staying physically active, limiting our intake of over-the-counter pain relievers, and not smoking.

Boost Your Kidney Health With Reframe

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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