A few years ago, at age 48, Greg Wright discovered blood in his urine. Concerned, the Hamden, Connecticut, resident contacted his doctor, who confirmed through an ultrasound that Wright had kidney stones—one in each kidney. It is an all-too-common discovery for men in this country: One in seven suffers from kidney stones. In fact, kidney stones are becoming a bigger health problem every year, though doctors can only speculate on why their occurrence is on the rise, and why they are more likely to appear in men than women.
Acute pain in the back and side typically signals kidney stones, and in this regard Wright was lucky—his stones were painless. Still, Wright wanted to eliminate the problem, because if left unchecked, stones can become painful and lead to infection. So he began taking medication that reduced his body’s creation of uric acid. “It seemed to stop the growth, but it took a long time,” says Wright. “The stones didn’t appear to be shrinking.”
After about a year, Wright asked his doctor what else he could try. To his surprise, the doctor suggested naturopathic medicine. In fact, it’s not an unusual idea: Many Americans who suffer from kidney stones are discovering a host of natural, noninvasive techniques that can help prevent stone formation and eliminate stones that have already formed. Like many people unfamiliar with naturopathic medicine, Wright was skeptical—but he gave it a try. Within six months of naturopathic treatment, his stones began to dissolve.
Kidney stone basics
What are kidney stones? Kidney stones are hard masses of crystals that form in the kidneys, twin fist-sized organs that remove extra water and waste from the blood and expel it in the form of urine. Often these stones contain calcium oxalate or calcium phosphate. Although many stones can pass unnoticed from the body, some can become lodged in the urinary tract for extended periods. The resulting pain can be excruciating, radiating from the back, abdomen, and genital area. Other kidney stone symptoms include nausea, vomiting, bloating, bloody urine, chills, and fever.
Who gets them? Kidney stones are by no means just a modern-day complaint. Even 7,000-year-old Egyptian mummies have been discovered with evidence of stones. But kidney stones are becoming increasingly common: In 1994 more than 5 percent of adults reported having had kidney stones at some point, up from just over 3 percent in 1980. And although the disparity is shrinking, men are more likely to be affected; 6.3 percent report having stones, compared to only 4.1 percent of women. White men ages 20 to 40 are most susceptible.
Some doctors believe the increased incidence of kidney stones in men may have to do with their not drinking enough water when active, which leads to dehydration and possibly urinary complications. Others say it may be associated with a preference for high-sodium foods, such as red meats and canned goods, which can contribute to stone formation. Still others say men may have a genetic disposition to the ailment.
What are the causes? Kidney stones are sometimes linked to urinary tract infections, kidney disorders, and hypercalciuria, an inherited condition in which the body absorbs too much calcium from foods. One other harbinger is a family history of kidney stones, though, again, doctors are not sure why this is the case. “There is clear evidence that if one of your first-degree relatives developed stone disease, you are much more likely to get stone disease,” says Leslie Spry, MD, a kidney specialist in Lincoln, Nebraska, and a spokesman for the National Kidney Foundation.
But many people, both men and women, seem to develop stones out of the blue—Wright, for example, didn’t have a family history of stones. That’s why it’s a good idea for everyone to think about ways they can keep their kidneys healthy.
Once you’ve formed one kidney stone, you are statistically more likely to form future stones. Doctors recommend a variety of preventive measures. Many of these treatments depend on the type of stone that’s passed, which is why doctors often ask you to save your stones for analysis. Following are some general recommendations.
Drink plenty of H20. One of the first steps doctors suggest to help prevent kidney stones is to drink lots of liquids, especially water, because this helps flush out the substances that produce them. For a rough estimate of how much water you should be drinking each day, divide your weight in half and convert that number to ounces, says Ginger Nash, ND, who owns a naturopathic private practice in North Haven, Connecticut.
Watch your salt intake. Men at risk for developing calcium stones should keep their sodium intake under 3,000 mg a day, because sodium appears to increase the amount of calcium in the urine. One practical way to lower your sodium is to go easy on the table salt—a single teaspoon contains 2,000 mg.
Decrease the animal protein in your diet. Reducing intake of animal protein foods is also a good move because these proteins appear to increase acid in the urine and promote stone formation. Also, excessive intake of vitamin C can increase the amount of oxalate in the urine, a main ingredient in calcium oxalate stones. Instead, focus on plant-based proteins and high-fiber foods, such as rye and rice, which help to flush calcium out of the body.
Keep your oxalate intake down. Those prone to calcium oxalate stones need to keep the amount of oxalate in their urine to 50 mg per day. To do so, cut back on oxalate-rich foods, including beets, chocolate, coffee, many soft drinks, nuts, rhubarb, spinach, strawberries, tea, and wheat bran.
Treating stones naturally
Many mainstream and naturopathic doctors agree that some kidney stones, depending on their size and location, require invasive techniques. These procedures include shock-wave treatments to shatter the stones and surgery to remove them. But a great many stones are treatable using natural methods.
“Some really wonderful homeopathic remedies and plant extracts [can help] deal with kidney stones,” says Nash. One therapy Nash has found extremely helpful is an extract of shoots and buds from juniper (Juniperus communis) and corn silk (Zea mays), taken when these plants are still very young. Juniper is believed to help detoxify the urinary tract and break down stones, and corn silk helps soothe urinary tract irritation, she says. Nash also uses a variety of homeopathic remedies, including one made from the uva-ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) plant, to encourage the body to use its own metabolic processes to break down the stones. (For doses, see “5 Herbs and Supplements for Kidney Health.”)
If Nash’s patients have stones high in oxalates, she prescribes vitamin B6, which helps lower oxalate levels in the urine. She uses aloe vera juice, known for its anti-inflammatory and healing properties, to combat the pain and inflammation of acute kidney stone attacks. Other naturopathic doctors utilize aromatherapy, hydrotherapy, lemon juice therapy, and a variety of homeopathic treatments. Nash sometimes recommends acupuncture because several points can help the kidneys release self-healing energies, thereby soothing urinary tract pain and helping to break down stones and prevent additional ones.
Nash’s kidney stone treatments have worked for many patients—including Wright. After becoming frustrated by mainstream procedures, Wright began using a combination of herbs and supplements Nash prescribed. “After six months I saw a marked difference in the kidney stone formation as measured by ultrasound,” says Wright. “They began to dissolve, and eventually, by the last ultrasound, they had almost disappeared.” Now, about two years later, there’s been no recurrence of symptoms. Says Wright, “I’m basically stone-free.”
Colorado-based writer Joel Warner has dramatically increased his water intake since researching this story.