Kidney disease and issues related to the kidney bring on different challenges for different people. But some common feelings show themselves over and over again: stress and anxiety. Whether short term or long term, these feelings are common but often overlooked in kidney patients. But the question still arises- can stress cause kidney stones or other damage to our kidneys?
And then on the other hand- how do we deal with the stress of having kidney stones or damage to our precious kidneys?
Let’s take a look.
Where do stress and anxiety come from?
Stress is a response from our bodies to any internal or external “stimulus.” This means that stress can come from your pesky brother popping out the closet to scare you (external source) or it can come from inside of us, like the looming feeling of stress about an upcoming exam or presentation at work (internal).
Stress is also be something that we experience acutely (for a short amount of time) or chronically (for an extended period of time). Both forms can be harmful to our bodies.
Anxiety, on the other hand, looks a bit more like feelings of uncertainty, dread or fearfulness that disrupt daily life. Anxiety, although it is common in those with kidney disease, oftentimes goes undetected and untreated.
Not only does this decrease the quality of life for those battling kidney disease, but the physical impact can also be detrimental.
The impact of stress and anxiety on our kidneys
Our bodies have an automatic response when we encounter a stressful situation, called a stress response. Depending on how stressful the situation is, our body will react accordingly.
Stress on the Cardiovascular System
There is a positive relationship between stress and our cardiovascular system (the heart system). Numerous studies suggest that stress, even when we are stressed for a short amount of time or if we are stressed out for a long period of time, can have a negative effect on our heart- particularly our heart rate, blood pressure, and our kidneys.
When we experience what we perceive as a stressful situation, our first response from our heart is an increase in our heart rate, or how fast our heart beats. If we were to check our pulses in a stressful situation- it would probably be going much faster than usual!
Next, our blood pressure would increase. The tiny muscles in the walls of our blood vessels get narrower, resulting in the force of the blood pumping through our veins to be too high for the vessel walls to handle. This is what we call high blood pressure, and when we have chronically high blood pressure, it may result in a condition called hypertension.
Stress and the kidneys
Hypertension is the second leading cause of kidney disease. Having high blood pressure can damage our blood vessels, including the blood vessels in our kidneys. When the vessels in our kidneys aren’t working properly, our kidneys can’t work like they need to.
Another reason to take deep breaths at work when our boss is stressing us out!
Blood sugars and stress
Many people with chronic kidney disease or kidney stones also experience problems with blood sugars. Whether it’s pre-diabetes, type 1, or type 2 diabetes, stress has a significant impact on blood sugar management.
Mental stress, anxiety, and depression have all been shown to indirectly increase hemoglobin A1c. It has been found that those with these conditions tend to follow their diet and lifestyle recommendations more closely when compared to those that do not have these issues.
Can stress cause kidney stones?
Stress is tricky- it can be harder to measure than other health indicators like the renal function panel or blood pressure because those tests give us exact numbers.
But stress is usually measured on a “perceived scale,” which means that the way that we perceive the events that happen in our life affect our stress levels- and that can mean different things for different people.
So, for those of us that perceive high levels of stress in our lives, how does that affect our kidneys?
Many clients often wonder if their kidney stones were caused by stress, or if there is a connection between kidney stones and stress.
It may not be that stones are directly caused by stress…. But there is some research that may suggest that if we are stressed out, we’re more likely to keep getting stones after we have had them before.
The evidence of kidney stones and stress
In one study conducted in 2013, researchers observed that people with calcium oxalate kidney stones were more likely to have kidney stones AGAIN if they had high levels of stress.
One thing to note about this study is that the “recurrent stone formers” also had higher blood sugar levels, higher uric acid, blood cortisol, and urine calcium levels as well as lower socioeconomic status and higher rates of metabolic syndrome.
A different study conducted in 2013 with calcium oxalate stone formers suggested that those with chronic stress may trigger a biological response from the body that encouraged them to get stones again.
What about the stress-stone-stress-stone cycle?
So we asked “can stress cause kidney stones?” but what if we asked, “can kidney stones cause more stress?” Is there a vicious cycle of stress and kidney stones going on?
A study done in 2017 took a look at this stress-stone-stress-stone cycle, but they were not able to draw any connection between stress and recurrent kidney stones.
So does stress cause kidney stones, or do kidney stones cause stress? Is the stress-stone-stress-stone cycle real? Maybe. We still need to do a lot more research in order to say one way or the other.
How do we cope with stress and other heavy emotions?
Let’s get one thing straight- we all deal with stress differently. For some of us, taking a brisk walk can help us calm down and think a little bit clearer. For others, getting coffee with a close friend does the trick.
Sometimes therapy from a qualified professional is the answer. Whatever your preferred method of stress relief, find time for it regularly!
Physical things we can do
Exercising can be a great way to relieve stress! Pick your favorite type of movement to get your heart rate up. That can mean biking, walking, going to the gym, tai chi, yoga- whatever you enjoy!
Having a pet or companion animal has been associated with decreased loneliness and anxiety. If you are at risk for falls, looking at pictures of animals or petting a friend or neighbor’s animal can be just as beneficial.
Food and Drink
Does our diet have to be perfect 100% of the time? No way. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t focus on nourishing our bodies, including our kidneys, properly. Focus on a balanced diet and don’t overdo it on the caffeine.
Emotional things we can do
Deep breathing, whether through a guided meditation or just a few deep breaths on your own can do wonders for our bodies. So often we think of nutrition and exercise as having the biggest impact on our health, but being connected with our breath can do wonders for our health too!
One study found that deep breathing helped reduce stress and improve productivity. Practicing some deep breathing before heading into a big project may help you out a bit!
Find a quiet spot. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath and get reconnected with yourself. Focus on what you are grateful for in life, big or small.
Struggling to find gratitude in your life? Download this FREE 4-minute guided gratitude meditation to get reacquainted with yourself and your body and lower stress levels!
This quick gratitude meditation can be done in your car before work, before bed, or any time during the day when you notice you are stressed out.
Write it out. It doesn’t have to be anything that you ever show anyone, but writing out emotions, events, fears, joy or whatever is on our mind can help us understand how we are feeling.
Journaling is something I encourage all of my clients to do. Grab a cute journal from your favorite small business and start writing!
The bottom line
There is some evidence to suggest that those with higher perceived stress (aka chronic stress) may be at risk for recurrent calcium oxalate stones.
But can stress cause kidney stones? We still don’t know. One thing we can do is find healthy ways to cope with stress that can be beneficial to our kidneys and the rest of our body too.
While stress is something to be mindful of, there are some different ways to prevent stones in the first place!
Staying hydrated, getting the right amount of calcium and going plant-based can all help prevent stones in the first place. Want to read more about preventing stones? Check out another blog post about kidney stones here.