The kidneys play a few essential roles in your body. They are responsible for filtering waste from your blood, regulating water and mineral balance, and producing certain hormones like adrenaline and erythropoietin.
Alcohol is one of the things your kidneys filter out from the blood. In moderation, your kidneys do just fine in eliminating ingested alcohol. But excessive drinking can wear down the kidneys, as they have to work much harder to filter out large amounts of alcohol.
Binge drinking can even cause acute kidney injury. Your kidneys become so overwhelmed with the large quantity of alcohol that they can no longer maintain proper fluid balance.
Though this condition is treatable and reversible, you still have a much higher risk of getting chronic kidney disease later on. According to the National Kidney Foundation, you are twice as likely to develop chronic kidney disease when you drink heavily.
Let’s explore in detail what happens to your kidneys because of alcohol’s effects.
One of the most common alcohol effects is that it acts as a diuretic. In other words, it makes you pee a lot, which means your body loses much water through urine. Alcohol suppresses a hormone called vasopressin, which allows the body to reabsorb water that passes through the kidneys.
When there is a lot of alcohol in your blood, very little vasopressin is present, so the kidneys will keep passing water into the urine, making you dehydrated.
Your other organs need water to function properly. If you become dehydrated, these organs will be deprived of water, which will negatively affect them.
Loss of fluid and electrolyte balance
Normally, the kidneys play a huge role in keeping healthy concentrations of electrolytes (magnesium, potassium, sodium, etc.) in the blood. But alcohol-induced water loss disturbs this delicate balance. Your body will then lose a lot of electrolytes as a consequence of dehydration.
Without the proper amount of electrolytes in the body, you may experience headaches and muscle weakness. In fact, electrolyte imbalance is one huge cause of the hangovers you get after a night of heavy drinking.
Increasing blood pressure
Alcohol is a well-known risk factor for developing high blood pressure. Alcohol causes an increase in the amount of a hormone called renin, whose effect is constricting blood vessels. As the space inside your blood vessels becomes smaller, your blood pressure increases.
The more you drink, the more renin is produced, and the more constricted your blood vessels become. With that, too much drinking can raise your blood pressure to dangerous levels.
If you have high blood pressure, you are also more likely to develop chronic kidney disease later on.
Liver damage can affect the kidneys
Alcohol is known to damage the liver, producing a condition known as alcohol-related liver disease. It comes in three stages: fatty liver, hepatitis, and liver cirrhosis. When left unchecked, this condition can cause irreversible damage to the kidneys, especially if it progresses to cirrhosis.
The liver, like the kidneys, also function to filter out waste and toxins from the blood. If the liver is unable to do that, the kidneys have to work harder to filter the blood. The rate of blood flow to the kidneys increases, making the job harder. The kidneys become overwhelmed, causing damage to them.
Acute kidney injury
Binge drinking, or taking more than four to five drinks within two hours, will elevate your blood alcohol concentration to dangerous levels. At this point, your kidneys may suddenly fail without warning. This is a condition known as acute kidney injury. When you develop this condition, you will need dialysis until your kidneys go back to normal.
Often, acute kidney injury subsides after some time. But in some cases, damage to the kidneys lasts for a longer time, or even permanently.
Chronic kidney disease
Compared to acute kidney injury, which happens suddenly and goes away after a while, chronic kidney disease progresses slowly and lasts much longer. Also, the damage is often irreversible, leading ultimately to a total loss of kidney function (end-stage renal failure). This is fatal unless constant dialysis or a kidney transplant is performed.
In the early stages of this disease, you may have a few symptoms but not notice them. Over time, symptoms will stack up, and once you realize something is wrong, the disease may have already progressed into an advanced stage.
Once the kidneys are failing, you will experience the following symptoms:
- Loss of appetite
- Urinating more frequently / less frequently
- Decreased mental sharpness
- Trouble sleeping
- Muscle cramps
- Swelling of the feet and ankles
- Dry, itchy skin
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- High blood pressure that’s hard to control
Aside from these, chronic kidney disease can also produce several complications in different areas of your body. These include:
- Swelling in your arms and legs
- Fluid pooling in your lungs
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Weak bones
- Decreased sex drive or fertility
- Erectile dysfunction
- Difficulty concentrating
- Personality changes
- Weakened immune system
Once you notice these symptoms, it’s best to make an appointment with your doctor as soon as you can. If chronic kidney disease is diagnosed early, you can do something to prevent kidney failure. Your doctor will likely order urine and blood tests to better find out the condition of your kidneys.
How do I prevent kidney damage due to alcohol effects?
You can still drink while taking care of your kidneys. The first and most important thing to do is reduce the volume and frequency of your drinking. Make sure you only have at most one drink (for women) or two drinks (for men) per day. The less you drink, the better it will be for your kidneys. Also, avoid drinking too much in a short time.
Also, make sure to drink lots of water to complement alcohol. This way, you can avoid the bad effects of dehydration and electrolyte loss. Keeping hydrated will additionally help you avoid a hangover the next morning.