The organs that make up the urinary tract work together to remove water-soluble toxins from the body. Understanding how the kidneys and bladder function together will help you know when to see a kidney doctor, or nephrologist.
Supporting a healthy urinary system and recognizing the signs of reduced kidney function are the best ways to protect your renal health and prevent conditions caused by the build up of toxins within the body. Let’s explore the way these organs function, the type of diseases that may develop, and how to improve kidney function.
How Does the Urinary System Work?
When you eat, your body takes nutrients and energy from digested food and transports it to all of your cells. As cells perform their functions and use that energy, they release waste products back into the bloodstream.
Many organs remove toxins and waste products from your body, including the lungs, liver, skin, and intestines. However, the urinary system is very effective at removing toxins and urea from the blood and also works to maintain the correct hydration levels to keep a healthy chemical balance within the body.
The urinary system usually consists of:
- Two kidneys
- Two ureters
- One bladder
- Two sphincter muscles
- One urethra
The Function of the Kidneys
Your kidneys are located near the middle of your back, below the ribcage on either side. They are shaped like kidney beans and are about the size of your fist. They contain tiny filtering units called nephrons, which filter the blood and form urine to allow waste products to pass out of the body.
Only one healthy kidney is necessary for this process, allowing qualified adults to donate a kidney to a compatible family member as part of advanced kidney disease treatment. Of course, following such a life-saving donation, extra care must be taken to support the health of the remaining kidney.
Crucial functions performed by the kidneys include:
- Maintaining fluid balance and proper hydration
- Filtering and regulating minerals in the bloodstream
- Removing waste products resulting from food metabolism
- Eliminating toxins and medication residue
- Creating hormones which promote bone health, regulate blood pressure, and stimulate the production of red blood cells
In adults, the kidneys manufacture about a quart and a half of urine per day, depending on a number of variables. Some medications may cause an increase or decrease in the amount of urine produced.
The urine produced by the kidneys travels down the ureters to the bladder. Muscles which line the ureter walls tighten and relax to push the liquid down.. A small amount of urine is released by the kidneys every 10 to 15 seconds.1
The Function of the Bladder
Your bladder is located in your pelvis and is supported by ligaments which attach to the pelvic bones and other organs. It is a hollow, muscular organ which is shaped like a triangular balloon, either round and large when full or small and deflated when empty.
The bladder’s main purpose is to store urine. A healthy bladder can hold up to two cups of urine, which is released through the urethra when you urinate. Small circular muscles called sphincters keep the opening closed to prevent leaking.
When your bladder starts to get full, nerves send a message to the brain, causing awareness of your need to empty it. You can usually control the urge until you make a conscious decision to urinate, and then your brain signals the sphincter muscles to relax and allow the urine to flow through the urethra and out of your body.
What Kinds of Toxins Are Removed?
Digesting protein from meat and some vegetables causes urea to be produced as a natural waste product. Removing urea is one of the most important functions of the kidney and bladder.
In addition to urea, these organs also remove:
- Food additives
- Excess hormones
- Harmful minerals
- Products of intestinal fermentation
When Should You See a Kidney Specialist?
Your primary doctor or pediatrician may refer you to a kidney doctor if he or she has concerns about your urinary tract health. A nephrologist is a medical doctor who specializes in diseases of the kidneys. A urologist provides surgical care for anatomical or structural disorders of the kidneys and urinary tract.
Some symptoms that might call for immediate care from a specialist include:
- Blood in the urine
- Cloudy, dark, or strong-smelling urine
- Fluid retention
- Arthritis or gout
- Dark circles or puffiness under the eyes
- High blood pressure
- Pain when urinating
- Low urine production
- Skin problems such as eczema or psoriasis
- Kidney stones
- Urinary tract infections, especially when chronic or recurring
- Kidney infections
As we age, our kidneys lose some of their ability to filter toxins from the blood, and the muscles which support the ureters, bladder, and urethra may lose some of their strength. Illness, injuries, or medications can also have a negative impact on the ability of the urinary system to work properly. Your doctor will run tests to determine the causes of your symptoms.
How Are Problems with the Bladder and Kidneys Diagnosed?
Some of the diagnostic tests that your urologist or nephrologist might perform are:
- Urinalysis to identify abnormal substances or infections
- Urodynamic tests to evaluate the storage and flow of urine from the bladder
- A kidney function test to provide information about how the kidneys are functioning and provide clues to any diseases that may be developing
What Medical Conditions Affect the Kidneys and Bladder?
Nephrology diseases range from easy to treat conditions to life-threatening illnesses. Because removing toxins from the blood is so vital to good health, any conditions that affect the kidneys and bladder should be diagnosed and treated in the early stages if possible.
Some of the common urinary system conditions include:
Kidney stones are the formation of stones, or calculi, in the urinary tract. They form in the kidneys and vary in size. As the stones move through the ureters, they cause pain ranging from mild to severe.
Prostatitis is an inflamed prostate gland which causes urgent, frequent, and painful urination in men. It may be caused by an infection or another source of inflammation.
Proteinuria is a condition where abnormally high amounts of protein are found in the urine. Since healthy kidneys do not remove protein from the blood, this indicates a problem with how the kidneys are functioning.
Renal failure, or kidney failure, means that the kidneys are no longer able to do an effective job of regulating water and removing toxins from the blood. When it comes on suddenly, it is acute; when it is a gradual reduction in function, it is called chronic kidney disease (CKD).
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are bacterial infections of the kidneys and bladder. An infection of the bladder is called cystitis, while pyelonephritis refers to an infection of the kidneys.
Urinary incontinence is a condition where urine is released from the bladder involuntarily, often when coughing, sneezing, or laughing. It may be a symptom of another condition or the result of injury, infection, aging, or childbirth.
Urinary retention refers to a problem with emptying the bladder. It has a variety of causes, including obstruction or a possible neurological problem. When it develops suddenly, it causes pain, but, if the bladder is repeatedly failing to empty completely, it may go unnoticed.
Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) is a condition older men may develop when the prostate gland enlarges. It creates pressure which blocks the urethra, making it difficult to urinate.
Painful bladder syndrome or interstitial cystitis (PBS/IC) is a disorder where the bladder wall becomes inflamed. It leads to bladder scarring and stiffening, as well as decreased bladder capacity.
How Can We Improve Kidney Function?
Some of the best ways to protect the health of the kidneys and urinary tract include:
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Managing high blood pressure
- Eating a diverse diet low in sodium, sugar, and processed foods
- Quitting smoking
- Using NSAID pain relievers sparingly
- Remaining active and exercising regularly
- Staying well-hydrated by drinking water throughout the day