Chronic kidney disease (CKD) affects around 4 million Canadians. That equates to about 11-13% of the population. Unfortunately, this condition has no cure, which is why prevention is key. One way people can reduce the risk of kidney disease is to pay attention to how much they drink. Alcohol does not cause CKD, though it can damage the kidneys. Still, regular alcohol use is a risk factor. What are the first signs of kidney damage from alcohol, and how can people reverse the damage? Read on to learn about alcohol’s impact on the kidneys and much more.
Table of Contents
How Does Alcohol Harm the Kidneys?
Alcohol harms the kidneys by changing the way these organs process substances. The kidneys’ primary function is to filter out toxins from the bloodstream. Alcohol is one such toxin.
When people consume too much alcohol at once or regularly consume alcohol over time, it alters the structure and function of their kidneys.
Alcohol alters the structure of the kidneys in multiple ways. Firstly, it can thicken glomerulus tissue, which is responsible for filtering the blood. Secondly, it enlarges the kidney tubule, which removes waste products from the kidneys.
These structural changes result in modifications to kidney function. Most importantly, they make the kidney less effective at filtering alcohol from the blood and regulating bodily fluids and electrolytes.
Alcohol also indirectly affects the kidneys via the liver and blood pressure. Chronic drinkers have a higher risk of hypertension and liver disease. Both of these conditions can further exacerbate kidney damage.
How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?
More than three to four alcoholic drinks per day or seven to fourteen drinks per week is too much. Drinking more than this can double someone’s risk of kidney damage and chronic kidney disease.
Consuming more than three to four drinks per hour can also negatively impact the kidneys. Binge drinking (consuming lots of alcohol in a short time period) often causes acute kidney injury. The condition features a sudden drop in kidney function, which may or may not be reversible.
What constitutes one drink, though? Standard drinks vary depending on the type of alcohol someone consumes. Experts agree that one standard drink equals 14 grammes of alcohol, which equates to:
- 12 ounces of beer at 5% alcohol by volume (ABV)
- eight ounces of malt liquor at 7% ABV
- five ounces of wine at 12% ABV
- three ounces of fortified wine at 17% ABV
- two ounces of liqueur at 24% ABV
- one and a half ounces of liquor at 40% ABV
The exact amount of alcohol someone can safely consume depends on multiple factors. These factors include the person’s age and gender. For example, older adults and women should drink less as their kidneys filter alcohol more slowly.
For some groups, such as people with kidney or liver disease, any amount of alcohol is too much. People should consult a healthcare provider if they are concerned about drinking and kidney damage.
Can Kidneys Recover from Alcohol Damage?
Yes, kidneys can recover from alcohol damage, but not always. The prognosis depends on the type of kidney damage. Kidney damage from drinking typically falls under two categories: acute and chronic damage.
Acute kidney damage (also known as acute kidney failure) can occur due to binge drinking. Binge drinking means consuming more than four to five drinks in two hours. This type of damage is reversible with dialysis treatment.
Long-term, regular drinking can also damage the kidneys. Some people with alcoholism end up with chronic kidney disease (CKD). Others acquire kidney abnormalities.
Chronic kidney disease is not reversible. What’s more, leaving CKD untreated can cause serious health complications. These complications include cardiovascular conditions, such as heart disease and stroke.
On the other hand, some kidney damage is reversible with abstinence from alcohol. For example, this study investigated the effects of alcohol abstinence on the following kidney abnormalities:
- Blood electrolytes
- Kidney tubular function
- Blood hormones
The study showed that abstaining from alcohol for only four weeks was sufficient to reverse the effects of chronic drinking. However, abstinence did not work for all the study participants. Kidney abnormalities persisted in a small selection of participants.
We need more research to learn why abstinence does not work for everyone. Still, getting treatment for an alcohol use disorder is the best way to reverse kidney injuries and prevent future damage.
What Are the First Signs of Kidney Damage from Alcohol?
The first signs of kidney damage from alcohol include fluid retention, changes in urination, lethargy, and loss of appetite.
The first two symptoms happen when the kidneys become less effective at regulating bodily fluids. The latter two symptoms occur due to toxin buildup in the bloodstream. Some of these toxins may cause fatigue, while others are anorexigenic (i.e., they suppress appetite).
As kidney damage progresses, people may experience more severe side effects. Individuals should consult a healthcare provider if they experience any of the following symptoms:
- Kidney pain
- Fever, especially if it comes with kidney pain
- Extreme confusion
- Loss of consciousness
- Bloody urine
People with kidney damage also have a higher risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs). People with CKD are particularly at risk. CKD often features a lowered immune response, reducing the body’s ability to fight infections like UTIs.
Kidney Pain After Drinking Alcohol
People who experience kidney pain during or after drinking alcohol should contact a physician. It is especially important to seek medical care if the pain worsens with time. Kidney pain is often an early sign of kidney damage.
Kidney pain feels like a dull ache in the lower back. It may affect one or both sides of the spine in the area beneath the ribcage. Often, gently pressing on the region will cause more intense pain.
The type of kidney damage that causes these painful symptoms varies. Some people may be dealing with acute kidney injuries. Others may have a UTI or, worse, be in the early stages of CKD.
Acute Kidney Injury
As mentioned, acute kidney injury can occur after a session of binge drinking. It happens when the kidney gets inundated by alcohol and cannot filter out the toxins as fast as they enter the bloodstream.
Kidney pain is a common symptom of acute kidney injury. Other signs someone may be experiencing this condition include:
- Reduced urination
- Extreme fatigue
- Swelling of the extremities
- Breathing difficulty
- Chest pain
This condition is reversible if the person stops drinking. However, without treatment and continued drinking, complications can occur. These complications include seizures, comas, and even death.
Urinary Tract Infections
Above, we discussed how kidney issues can increase someone’s risk of UTIs. Additionally, binge drinking or regular alcohol consumption causes dehydration. Dehydration is yet another risk factor for UTIs.
UTIs feature symptoms like increased urination and a burning sensation while urinating. Kidney pain is also a possible side effect of this infection. Luckily, getting treatment for a UTI is usually sufficient to eliminate kidney pain.
Chronic Kidney Disease
In severe cases, kidney pain can be a sign of CKD. Most people do not experience symptoms in the early stages of CKD. However, late-stage symptoms may develop if left untreated, which include:
- Weight loss
- Swollen feet, ankles, hands, or face
- Bloody urine
- Increased urination, especially at night
- Itchy skin
- Muscle cramps
- Constantly feeling sick
- Erectile dysfunction
Treatment can help with kidney pain and other symptoms of CKD. CKD treatment generally consists of dialysis or, in extreme cases, a kidney transplant.
Alcohol and Kidney Disease
Alcohol may increase the risk of kidney disease, but it does not cause CKD directly. However, those with kidney disease must be extra careful when consuming alcohol.
Regular drinking doubles someone’s risk of CKD. People who also smoke tobacco products are at a five times greater risk of CKD than those who do not smoke or drink.
People with CKD can safely consume alcohol in moderation. As mentioned, moderate drinking looks like up to seven drinks per week for women and up to 14 drinks per week for men. Daily, women should only consume up to three alcoholic beverages, and men should only consume up to four.
Other considerations for people with kidney disease include:
- Making sure to include alcohol when calculating your daily fluid intake
- Drinking enough water to make up for alcohol’s diuretic effect
- Avoiding drinking on medications that interact with alcohol
- Paying attention to alcohol’s impact on blood sugar levels
People with kidney disease should talk to their doctor about how much alcohol is too much. If all else fails, it may be best to avoid alcohol altogether. Those who cannot avoid alcohol may require treatment at rehab centres like Simcoe Addiction and Mental Health.
Prevent Kidney Damage With Alcohol Addiction Treatment
So, what are the first signs of kidney damage from alcohol? Exhaustion, urination changes, appetite loss, and fluid retention are among the earliest signs. Kidney pain while drinking is another symptom to look out for, as it may mean kidney damage is progressing.
Are you worried about how drinking affects your kidneys? If you also struggle to quit drinking, you may have an alcohol use disorder. Contact Simcoe to learn about our alcohol treatment programme and get the help you need today.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can’t find the answers you are searching for in our guide? Then check out these frequently asked questions to learn more about alcohol and its impact on kidney health.
No, alcohol cannot cause kidney stones, but regular drinking is a risk factor. Alcohol dehydrates the body. Dehydration is one of the possible causes of kidney stones.
However, a 2023 study investigated the link between alcohol and kidney stones in American adults. The study found no significant link between heavy drinking and kidney stones.
We need more research to learn if alcohol’s dehydrating effects really do correlate with kidney stones. People concerned about developing kidney stones due to alcohol use should drink in moderation.
The safest alcohol for kidneys is red wine. Red wine is relatively low in alcohol and contains healthy vitamins and minerals. Drinking a few glasses of red wine a day can actually be good for kidney health.
However, consuming too much red wine reverses these effects. People should only drink in moderation if they want to harness the health benefits of red wine.
Any type of alcohol is safe for the kidneys when consumed in moderation. Other beverages may not provide the same health benefits as red wine. Still, they will not harm the kidneys, either.
How long you have to drink to get kidney damage depends on multiple factors, including how much you drink and your risk profile. Heavy drinking does not always result in kidney damage, but it increases someone’s risk.
Some people may drink heavily once and obtain an acute kidney injury. With treatment, this type of damage is reversible.
Otherwise, research is inconclusive regarding alcohol’s involvement in long-term kidney damage.
The best way to treat kidney pain after drinking alcohol is to see a doctor. People experiencing kidney pain after drinking should seek emergency medical help immediately if they also have any of the following symptoms:
- Severe pain
- A fever
- High blood pressure
- Loss of consciousness
- Blurry vision
A doctor can use various treatments depending on the cause. For example, some people may develop kidney pain while drinking due to a UTI. In that case, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection.
Pain medication, electrolytes, fluids, and dialysis are also options. In extreme situations, people with kidney pain after consuming alcohol may need blood pressure medication, long-term dialysis, or even a kidney transplant.