When patients come in to address particular organ health, they most often mention their heart, their liver, their lungs, or the various organs of their digestive system and reproductive system, but rarely does someone ask me about their kidneys. Your kidneys do a lot of work for you, but I doubt you think much about them, unless you have kidney health issues. This month is National Kidney Month, so I ask you to think about this hard working duo, and consider how you can keep them healthy.
What do your kidneys do?
Your kidneys filter about 200 litres of blood daily. You know that the kidneys help eliminate waste products and excess fluid from your body, but did you also know that your kidneys are needed to:
- Regulate your blood pressure
- Produce an active form of vitamin D
- Control the production of red blood cells
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, we look to the TCM Kidney system when issues arise for bone and joint health, low back pain, issues with fear and anxiety, fatigue, edema, reproductive health, menopausal symptoms, and more. If you’ve experienced trauma, ongoing chronic stress, or have been told you have adrenal issues, we consider the Kidneys for that too, as the adrenal glands sit atop the kidneys.
How do kidneys malfunction?
There are many reasons why your kidneys could find themselves in trouble. Things that can increase your risk include smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, urinary tract infections that travel to the kidneys, a family history of kidney disease, and aging. Some are just born with congenital issues affecting the kidneys, and those of Aboriginal, Asian, South Asian, Pacific Island, African/Caribbean, and Hispanic descent are at higher risk.
Though most aren’t aware of it, estimates are that up to two million Canadians have chronic kidney disease (CKD) or are at risk for it.
How do you know if your kidneys are struggling? One simple blood test you can get is called estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR). Check out this risk assessment online tool for National Kidney Month to see if you should ask your doctor for this blood test.
How do I keep my kidneys healthy?
- Hydrate. You don’t have to go overboard, but I find many of my patients are chronically dehydrated. Unless you are taking B vitamins (including in a multi)–in which case your urine is likely to be bright yellow–your urine can help you determine if you are sufficiently hydrated. It should be a very pale yellow. If it’s a dark yellow, you may be dehydrated. Keep in mind that diuretics, like some blood pressure medications and caffeinated beverages, can make you have to pee much more often, as can overactive bladder and prostate problems.
- Keep healthy eating and exercise habits. Both will help manage your blood pressure, diabetes, stress, and weight. Watch your salt intake. Yes, salt is important for our health, but many take in too much salt, as it’s found in so many processed foods. You can also overdo the “good salt” like sea salt and Himalayan salt, especially if you have high blood pressure.
- Stop smoking. So many reasons to quit. Smoking damages your blood vessels, raises blood pressure, and increases your risk for kidney cancer. Acupuncture can help you quit smoking.
- Don’t overdo pain medications like Advil and Motrin (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen). These non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can cause kidney damage if taken too often. Acupuncture is best known for its ability to help treat and manage pain. Check out TCM for pain management options.
- Treat your diabetes, high blood pressure (click me), and urinary tract infections. Because these all increase your risk of kidney disease, it’s vital that you treat these health issues appropriately. Did you know that Traditional Chinese Medicine can help you not just treat the symptoms of these problems, but also work on getting to the source?
- Manage your stress. Stress can be a catalyst for disease. When the body is in chronic stress, it has a hard time healing. It doesn’t do a good job of simultaneously defending and repairing the body–often picking defending as its preferential course of action. There are many ways to cope with stress and support your adrenal glands. For more on adrenal fatigue click here.
- Come in for a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) consultation. While I won’t be able to detect your GFR levels without lab results, your body may be giving clues that your kidneys need to be addressed. Plus, it’s better to work preventively than in response to organ failure.
National Kidney Month
I have a friend who has a kidney transplant. He knows the challenges that come with dialysis, organ transplant, and ongoing health issues. I urge you to remember to pay attention to the health of your kidneys this National Kidney Month and beyond, and to register for organ donation. It’s easy to do. Simply start with clicking here.
One of the top reasons why people come to see me is for problems with one (or more) or their joints. Joints that are swollen. Joints that hurt. Joints that don’t move properly. Or for prevention of any of the above for someone who is active and would like to stay that way.
Most of us think of the knees, elbows, hips, shoulders, wrists, and ankles when we think about joints. But think, as well, of all the little joints in your fingers and toes (phalangeal joints) and your hands and feet (the metacarpals and metatarsals); the joints between every vertebrae along your spine; the joints of your jaw (temporomandibular joint—TMJ), and even those of your skull.
These joints work hard!
Like every hard working organism, they are not alone. They have support. Perhaps it’s just because the hockey playoffs are on now and I have sports on the brain, I’m going to use sport as an analogy.
The game can be called Kinesiology. My initial degree was Kinesiology, the study of human movement. The aim of the game is to move when called to action and stabilize when called to stop. Movement occurs at the joints and the team members are bones, cartilage, bursa, menisci, synonvial joint fluid, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Each of these team members has a role to play.
Bones, whether flat, long, or irregularly shaped, end at least one side in a joint. Cartilage, and bursa help buffer friction and impact. Synovial joint fluid also helps with these roles as well as with lubricating the joint. Ligaments help prevent too much movement of the joint that would otherwise result in injury. Tendons and muscles move the joints. When one of these teammates has a problem, the joint has a problem.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, each of these players is connected to an organ system. Kidneys regulate the bones and cartilage. Liver rules the tendons and ligaments. Spleen controls the muscles.
You might think of these organ systems as the coaches. High level teams often have more than one coach! Even these coaches do not function on their own. There are other organ systems that must function properly in order for them to do their job, just as a general manager, owner, and fans will impact the coaches.
So you can see that joint health is incredibly complex. Traditional Chinese Medicine considers this complexity and addresses the joint itself as well as all the players and participants that allow the joint to function properly. We do so by making a proper assessment and then using acupuncture, Chinese herbs, supplements, and other modalities to treat the individual, not just the “problem” joint(s). You win when you can move without pain and restriction!
One of the most common goals for the new year is a decision to be more active. I started day one of January first with an invigorating Polar Bear swim! One of the most common blocks to being more active is pain. Pain management is where I can help.
Acupuncture can be very effective to treat pain from many causes, from injury and surgery recovery, to arthritis, to menstrual cramps, to headaches, to migraines, to digestive disorder pain, and more. Check out my website for more specific information for each of these types of pain: http://www.activetcm.com/pain_management/
There are a multitude of supplements both online and in stores with claims to cure your pain, but which ones are right for you? First of all, that depends on your type of pain. Is it from muscle injury? Joint degeneration? Nerve impingement? Internal organ disease? Immune system imbalance? Hormonal imbalance? All of the above? None of the above?
Because there are so many causes for pain and because pain is such a subjective experience, it is important to get a proper assessment. That usually starts with a complete and thorough consultation determining when/how the pain started; what aggravates the pain; what alleviates the pain; what concurrent medical issues there might be; what the health history indicates; whether lifestyle, emotional, mental, or spiritual aspects are big contributors (they always contribute something!); and more.
Some common supplements that may crossover treatment for several different kinds of pain include magnesium, fish oils, and coenzyme Q10.
Though magnesium is found in a lot of foods, including dark leafy green veggies, legumes, and nuts, rates of deficiency are high in North America. In fact, approximately 68% of the US population consumes less than the RDA (recommended dietary allowance) of magnesium and 19% of the population consumes less than 50% of the RDA!
Magnesium deficiency can contribute to muscle cramps and tightness, migraines, fatigue, poor sleep, weak bones, menstrual cramps, and anxiety.
Supplementing magnesium is easy. Look for magnesium glycinate, bisglycinate, or citrate, avoiding magnesium oxide, which draws water into the bowels to act as a laxative (thus poorly absorbed). I most often recommend magnesium glycinate capsules or magnesium citrate powder.
It almost impossible not to have heard about omega 3 essential fatty acids. These “good fats” are often in the news because of their many health benefits, including reducing inflammation, improving heart health, decreasing joint pain, supporting healthy skin, and easing depression.
My mom also told me years ago to eat more fish so I could be smart. I admit I hated fish. Though I’ve now learned to like it, I still take fish oil capsules as I know that I cannot eat enough fish to match my busy and active lifestyle and supply me enough DHA and EPA (main components of the omega 3s from fish).
When choosing a fish oil, quality is key. Poor quality fish oil capsules may taste fishy because the oils are rancid. Inappropriately processed fish oils may not be as health beneficial because heat and light can destroy these delicate fats.
If you want to know more about which fish oils I prefer, feel free to ask me.
This powerful antioxidant can be your buddy and you can call him by his nickname CoQ10. He will help protect you; he can be your body guard. As an antioxidant, he assists in decreasing cellular damage. CoQ10 is also involved in making a key energy molecule called ATP. Thus, if your body doesn’t get or make enough CoQ10, you may feel fatigued and/or depressed and many of your body’s processes will not function properly.
Your body makes CoQ10 and we also consume it via oily fish, organ meats, and whole grains.
So, how do you know if you have enough? If you have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or heart disease, you may benefit from taking CoQ10. Statin drugs so commonly used to treat high cholesterol contribute to lower CoQ10 levels, so if you are taking these drugs, talk to your health provider to determine if supplementing will benefit you.
CoQ10 has also shown great promise for treating migraines at dosages of 150mg-300mg daily. Once again, quality matters.
As always, feel free to ask me. Contact me here.
The following very LONG blog is from 2 articles I wrote for a local magazine. I thought some might find it useful here:
Have you ever walked into a pharmacy or a nutrition store and gazed upon the bottle upon bottle of options for supplements? Perhaps you want to buy some calcium, but find it hard to pick out the best one. Price is certainly one thing to consider, but it is definitely not the most important thing to mull over when purchasing. You wouldn’t just pick the cheapest car when auto shopping, just because it’s the cheapest. That $200 deal might just be trash on wheels and what a waste of your money it could be.
To Supplement, or Not to Supplement, That is the Question…
The first question is whether you actually need to buy any supplements. Even the Canada Food Guide now recommends a multivitamin/mineral supplement. There are many reasons why a supplement may be useful or even essential.
1. You don’t eat enough healthy, nutritionally balanced and varied meals. Broccoli, tomato, and lettuce are not good enough to cover your vegetable category. Can you try to guess the most consumed vegetable of North America? Potatoes. Usually in the form of French fries. Really not good enough.
2. You have higher nutritional needs. Illness, stress, medications, and higher activity levels are examples of situations that cause a need for more nutrients. Some medications cause specific nutrient deficiencies. Ask your health practitioner or pharmacist about your medications and their impact.
3. You have poor digestion/absorption. Just because you consume something does not mean that your body uses all those nutrients. We tend to produce fewer digestive enzymes as we age. Those with digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s, colitis, indigestion, and others may not have good digestive absorption of vitamins, minerals, and other key nutrients. Also, as we age, we produce less stomach acid and fewer digestive enzymes. Even if you have heartburn or acid reflux, you may still have insufficient stomach acid. It may be that the problem is not enough of a protective lining of mucus to shield the stomach tissues or that the valve that stops stomach acid from rising is too loose and allows stomach acid to seep back and irritate the esophagus (the tube that brings food from your mouth to your stomach).
4. Our food is less nutrient-rich than it once was due to nutrient-poor soils from over farming, early harvesting so that foods can be send on long journeys across the continent or from the other side of the world, pollution, and poor quality foods. We used to grow our own food or buy it from our neighbours. We used to pick up fresh foods daily. We now buy foods laden in preservatives. We add artificial or “natural” flavours to try to make them tasty again. We buy foods from the other side of the world. Try eating a banana in Thailand. It tastes totally different than what we eat here. Why? Because we don’t grow bananas here! Those bananas are picked long before they are ripe.
It is impossible for me to list all the supplements that you could or should consider, so we’ll just cover a few fundamentals about multivitamins/minerals in this article and expand on other important supplement categories next month.
If any of the four listed issues above are ones that you think affect you then consider a multivitamin/mineral. As mentioned, not all supplements are created the same. When picking up a multi, read the label or ask someone to help you. These are some things to look for:
a) We all have different needs at different stages of our lives. Women are different than men. Age plays a factor. So, if you are over the age of 45 or 50, pick a multi designed for “seniors” or “older adult”.
b) Some nutrients are trickier than others. Looking at a multi, one way to assess quality is to check out the vitamin E. Does it read “dl-alpha-tocopherol”? If so, then that company is using a synthetic vitamin E which is poorly absorbed. Make sure that it reads “d-alpha-tocopherol”. Note the missing “l”. If the multi has “mixed tocopherols” or, even better, includes “tocotrienols”, you are getting a leg up on your vitamin E source and that multi is likely a very good one.
c) Check out the “non-medicinal” list of ingredients. I recommend avoiding supplements that add in extras like aspartame (an artificial sweetener—more likely found in the chewable forms), hydrogenated palm or soybean oils (hydrogenation produces trans fats, that bad stuff you have been hearing more and more about), sodium benzoate (a preservative), and FD&C dyes.
d) Remember, multis are a mix of various vitamins and minerals. If your multi is a single colour (usually a bright reddish orange), then dyes and other coatings have been used. Multis also often smell bad. The B vitamins, in particular, smell bad. That’s normal. If you have to, plug your nose when you take them.
Here’s a hint about swallowing these usually large pills: Have a small mouthful of food, chew it well, and pop in 1 or 2 of the supplement tablets or capsules with the food. You will find it much easier to get down.
Supplement How-To, part 2
Last month I covered some basic things to consider for choosing and taking supplements to optimize your health. This month’s article will cover a few specifics about some particular areas of health, but do remember that these recommendations are still generalized and you may want to discuss your particular needs with your health care provider or qualified natural health practitioner as each individual’s needs will vary.
Note that for this category, I didn’t simply label it “Calcium”. Many nutrients are key to good bone health.
a) Calcium: Calcium carbonate is commonly used, but it is generally poorly absorbed. Calcium carbonate is what antacids use to decrease stomach acid. The problem with that as a calcium source is that we need stomach acid in order to absorb calcium and our stomach acid tends to decline as we age (even if you have acid reflux, it does not mean you have too much acid, just likely not enough mucus to protect from the acid). Better options include calcium citrate, calcium chelate, and my preferred, calcium microcrystalline hydroxyapatite complex (MCHC). The last one can not only slow the rate of bone loss, but also reverse bone loss attributed to osteoporosis.
b) Magnesium: More than 60% of the body’s store of magnesium is in the bones. Sufficient magnesium is required for vitamin D and calcium absorption. In addition, magnesium on its own has been shown to slow the rate of bone loss. Magnesium oxide is a poorly absorbed form, so what you are best consuming in supplement form is magnesium citrate, magnesium chelate, or magnesium glycinate.
c) Vitamin D: Vitamin D is essential for optimal calcium absorption. While your body can make this nutrient from exposure to sunlight, many of us do not get enough sun throughout the year to support our needs.
d) Others: Manganese, copper, zinc, strontium, boron, and phosphorous are other key bone nutrients.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFA)
You’ve likely heard about the importance of essential fatty acids (EFAs). Some best sources are found in flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds (yes, of the famously known “Chia Pet” plants), and fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, herring, and mackerel. The merit of EFAs is not overstated. They are “essential” because your body cannot make them on its own and they need to be consumed in foods.
There are some supplements where the cheapest brand may be just as good as the most expensive. That is not the case with EFAs. While you don’t necessarily have to search out the most expensive one, quality of oil is important.
When choosing fish oils, the small fish are best, i.e. sardines, mackerel, herring, rather than the large salmon, tuna, halibut, and cod. This is because the larger fish, being higher up on the food chain, have potential for a higher accumulation of heavy metals such as mercury.
Flax seeds are a great source of omega 3 EFAs (and fibre), but in order to get the oils out, you need to either buy flax oil, flax oil capsules, or grind flax seeds. Once ground, the flax seeds need to be kept in the fridge. Another option is to buy husked flax seeds as the oils are readily accessible and they are shelf stable.
Hemp seeds and chia seeds are great snacks as they can be chewed to access the oils, protein, and fibre.
In order to properly absorb and utilize all nutrients, your digestive system has to be working well enough. You may not need any of these supplements, but if your digestive system is impaired, you can ask me which, if any, might be best suited for you and what others might you include that I haven’t written about here.
Some key digestive nutrients include the following:
a) Digestive enzymes: As we age, we produce fewer digestive enzymes, substances that our bodies need to break down the foods that we eat so their nutrients can be absorbed and used. Eating raw or lightly cooked (TCM prefers lightly cooked, steamed, slow cooked, and soups and stews) vegetables, fruits, grains (especially sprouted grains), and legumes will provide some enzymes. Supplemental enzymes in capsule format are also available. If you are lactose intolerant (problems digesting milk and dairy products), make sure your enzyme supplement includes lactase.
b) Probiotics: Probiotics are the “good bacteria” that you hear a lot about in yogurt commercials. Yogurt is a good source, but if you are taking or have taken a lot of antibiotics, or if you have digestive issues (constipation, diarrhea, bloating, cramping, etc.), probiotic supplements are best as they contain much higher dosages of the good bacteria. There are many strains of these bacteria, so it may be best to talk to a natural health care practitioner to determine which is best for you. This is another category where quality makes a difference because if the quality is poor, not enough of the good bacteria will survive and live in your intestines.
c) Fibre: Most of us do not get enough fibre in our diets. Although many people think that we only need to worry about fibre if we are constipated, its benefits are many. Fibre does help with regulating bowel function, will not cause “too many bowel movements” when taken properly, helps keep blood cholesterol in check, helps regulate blood sugar levels, and may even help prevent cancer, kidney stones, and gallstones.
d) Senna: I want to mention this one because it is commonly taken to remedy constipation. Note, however, that it can become habit forming because the body can become dependant on it. Talk with your health care provider for other options so that you can limit your senna use.
“Supplements” is a huge topic and I’ve only covered a very small part of it, but some things to remember are that no supplement should be used to replace a healthy diet and lifestyle, that while generally safe you should make sure that the supplements that you take are suitable for you and in combination with any medications that you take, and that quality of product and an appropriate dosage will impact the effectiveness of any supplement.
Dr. Melissa Carr is a registered Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncturist with a Bachelor’s degree in Human Kinetics from the University of Guelph in Ontario. In addition to running her own clinic, Dr. Carr also acts as a natural health and nutrition consultant for a several companies and writes for health magazines. Believing that her role is as guide, teacher, and motivator, her goal is to work in partnership with her patients to bring them to their optimal health. www.activetcm.com 604-783-2846