If you’ve ever passed a kidney stone, you know what a painful experience it can be. Some people describe having kidney stones as worse than the pain of labor.
The bad news is that kidney stones tend to recur. The good news? There are lifestyle changes you can make to prevent kidney stones naturally.
What Are Kidney Stones?
A kidney stone is a hard mass that forms from crystals in the urine. It happens when there are high amounts of certain substances in the urine — and not enough liquid.
There are different types of kidney stones. The most common are calcium oxalate stones. They account for 80% of all kidney stones.
Why do kidney stones hurt so much?
Sometimes the stones stay in the kidneys when they are asymptomatic, but they can also travel through the urinary system. Pain from kidney stones typically occurs when they move through the urinary system.
A small stone may pass so easily you may not even notice it. But larger stones can get stuck and cause blockages.
When a kidney stone causes a blockage, urine backs up into the organs of the urinary tract. This backup of urine and the irritation of the stone itself can both cause excruciating pain.
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Who Gets Kidney Stones?
More men than women get kidney stones. Although children can develop kidney stones, it’s not common.
Some people are simply more prone to getting kidney stones than others. Risk factors for kidney stones include:
- A diet high in protein and/or sodium.
- A family history of kidney stones.
- Having other types of kidney disease, such as polycystic kidney disease.
- Taking diuretics (water pills).
How to Prevent Kidney Stones
Doctors can treat kidney stones with medication or surgery. But it’s better to prevent kidney stones from happening in the first place.
Your chances of getting kidney stones decrease if you:
Drink more water
The single most important thing you can do to prevent kidney stones: Increase the amount of water you drink. For most people, about eight 8-ounce glasses per day is the right amount.
If you’re properly hydrated, your urine should look light-colored or clear, like water almost. It should never look dark.
Eating too much salt increases your risk of developing calcified deposits, also known as kidney stones. Most Americans consume too much sodium, which is prevalent in processed and packaged foods. You should aim for less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day.
If you’ve had kidney stones in the past, aim for 1,500 mg of sodium per day.
Cut down on meat, fish, and eggs
A diet heavy in animal protein raises your risk of getting kidney stones. Try to limit meats like beef, chicken, pork, and organ meats. Fish, shellfish, and eggs contain animal protein, so try to cut back on those as well.
Maintain a healthy weight
Staying active, eating a balanced diet, and keeping your weight under control helps prevent kidney stones naturally. The healthier you are overall, the less likely you are to develop kidney stones.
What Foods Prevent Kidney Stones?
“No single food can guarantee that you won’t get kidney stones. But eating the right kind of foods for your body will help reduce your chances of kidney stones developing,” said Steven Rockoff, MD, urologist, UPMC Williamsport. To help prevent kidney stones naturally:
Eat the right amount of calcium-rich foods
The old theory of only calcium rich products leading to stone production is no longer completely true, often oxalate is the main culprit. Calcium naturally binds to a substance called oxalate. If calcium and oxalate combine in the urine, they can form kidney stones, especially if there’s not enough liquid.
Ideally, calcium binds with oxalate in the stomach and intestines before moving to the kidneys. Eating foods with calcium is a good way for oxalates to leave the body without forming kidney stones. Your doctor may recommend eating foods with calcium and oxalate together (see below).
It’s better to get calcium from food, not supplements. Calcium supplements may actually increase your chance of getting kidney stones.
Milk, cheese, and yogurt are high in calcium. So are green, leafy veggies (broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale) and some beans (cannellini, red kidney, pinto). Ask your doctor about the right amount of calcium for you.
Limit foods containing oxalate
Oxalate is a natural substance found in many different foods. Your doctor may suggest limiting the amount of oxalate you eat to lower your chances of developing kidney stones. The following foods are high in oxalate:
- Sweet potatoes
You don’t have to cut out oxalates completely. In fact, some are essential for good nutrition.
Instead, your doctor may suggest eating foods with oxalate together with foods with calcium. That way, the substances can bind together before they reach the kidneys. This makes it less likely that kidney stones will form in the urine.
Swap meat for high protein plant-based foods
Try getting some of your protein from these high protein, plant-based foods:
- Kidney beans
- Dried peas
- Soy milk
Cook from scratch when possible
It’s easier to reduce sodium when you limit processed and prepared foods. When you prepare your own meals, you can replace some salt with salt substitutes, herbs, and spices for flavor.
Add lemon to your water (and everything else)
Lemon juice contains high amounts of citric acid, which protects against kidney stones forming. Add lemon juice to water and spritz it over salads, vegetables, and other foods.
One caveat: If you’ve had kidney stones in the past, it’s important to know what kind they were. Different types of kidney stones may require different eating plans. Always check with your doctor before starting any new nutrition program.
Consistency is king
Most patients tend to struggle with the prevention of kidney stones because prevention requires being held accountable to a plan. Diets and medications are often habitual for patients, and are also linked to their routines and lifestyle changes. Lapses in regimented prevention plans can often lead to recurrent stones. Once you are a stone former, you will get them for life. Consistent prevention plans are key in preventing recurrent stones.
National Kidney Foundation, 6 Easy Ways to Prevent Kidney Stones, Link
National Kidney Foundation, Kidney Stone Diet Plan and Prevention, Link
National Kidney Foundation, Calcium Oxalate Stones, Link
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Can I help prevent kidney stones by changing what I eat or drink? Link
American Kidney Fund, Kidney Stone Causes, Symptoms, Treatments, & Prevention, Link
The UPMC Department of Urology offers a wide variety of specialized care for diseases of the male and female urinary tract and the male reproductive organs, including erectile dysfunction, kidney stones, urinary incontinence, prostate cancer, and more. We have a multifaceted team of physicians and researchers working together to provide the best care to both children and adults. Our team is nationally renowned for expertise in highly specialized technologies and minimally invasive surgical techniques. To find a provider near you, visit our website.