Kidney stones and kidney disease bring on different challenges for different people. This often results in chronic stress. Stress and anxiety are common but often overlooked in kidney patients. But the question still arises- can stress cause kidney stones or other kidney damage And if so, how does a person deal with the stress and kidney stones or damage to precious kidneys? We will review how stress can impact kidney health, as well as how stress can cause kidney stones. We will also provide tips and suggestions on how to reduce and manage stress so kidney stones will not occur again.
This article was written by Shelby Anderson, RDN, LDN, and reviewed by Jen Hernandez RDN, CSR, LDN.
*This article contains affiliate links in which we may earn a percentage of sales at no expense to you. We only ever provide affiliate links for products that we truly believe in and recommend for kidney warriors.
Table of Contents
What is Stress?
While it sounds strange, stress is actually a very important part of good health. It helps us to respond when we feel unwell, like giving us extra energy for “fight-or-flight.”
Stress is a response from the body to internal or external activities. It is there to help us prepare or react to something threatening or challenging. Stress is a normal, biological function of the human body.
Stress can come from an external source, like when a giggly grandchild pops out of the closet for a scare.
It can also come from inside of us, like the looming feeling of stress about upcoming kidney stone or renal test results. This is an example of internal stress.
Stress is also be something that we experience for a short amount of time (acutely) or for an extended period of time (chronically). These types of stress can be helpful or harmful to the body.
Cortisol is the primary stress hormone. When one experiences stress, their cortisol hormone levels increase.
Some of the functions of cortisol include;
- increase blood sugars
- shift how the body uses blood sugars
- decrease/stop unessential bodily functions (like appetite and digestion)
- shift the immune response
- changes to body to break down protein and fats for quick energy
- supress inflammation
As you may have been able to tell, cortisol essentially helps us in that “fight-or-flight” stage when it comes to a stressful environment.
Chronically High Cortisol
However, in cases of chronic stress, cortisol levels stay high for too long. This can be unhealthy for the body.
Long-term high levels of cortisol are associated with:
- rheumatoid arthritis
- chronic fatigue
- high blood pressure
- increased levels of pain
- poor blood sugar control and type 2 diabetes
- sleep problems
- weakened immune system
- decreasing mental clarity
Acute vs. Chronic Stress
It’s important to understand the difference between acute and chronic stress.
As mentioned above, acute stress is our body’s natural response that protect us in difficult situations. Acute stress responses happen and are over rather quickly.
Chronic stress, however, is a long-term stress response. Experiencing chronic stress can cause problems with our overall health, kidney health and yes – even kidney stones.
Let’s dive into how stress impacts different systems of the body.
Stress on Kidneys & Health
There is an automatic response when encountering a stressful situation. It is called a stress response.
The body will react accordingly, depending on how stressful the situation.
Stress and the Cardiovascular System
There is a positive relationship between stress and the cardiovascular system (the heart system).
Numerous studies suggest that stress can have a negative effect on the heart- particularly heart rate, blood pressure, and the kidneys. Even when stressed for a short amount of time.
There are a series of actions that occur when experiencing what is perceived as a stressful situation.
The first response from the heart is an increase in the heart rate.
Next, blood pressure would increase. The tiny muscles in the walls of the blood vessels get narrower.
This results in the force of the blood pumping through the veins to be too high for the vessel walls to handle. This is what we call high blood pressure.
When a person has chronically high blood pressure, it may result in a condition called hypertension.
Stress and Kidney Disease
As mentioned above, chronic stress increases the risk of developing high blood pressure (hypertension).
Hypertension is the second leading cause of kidney disease.
Having high blood pressure can damage blood vessels, including the blood vessels in the kidneys. The kidneys can’t work like they need to when the vessels in the kidneys aren’t working properly.
So while it is difficult to prove that stress directly causes kidney disease, the potential outcomes from chronic stress can cause kidney disease and further kidney damage.
Stress and Diabetes
Many people with chronic kidney disease or kidney stones also experience problems with blood sugars.
Stress has a significant impact on blood sugar management whether it’s pre-diabetes, type 1, or type 2 diabetes.
Mental stress, anxiety, and depression have all been shown to indirectly increase hemoglobin A1c.
Why is this important? Because diabetes is the number one cause of kidney disease. Diabetes has also been associated with uric acid kidney stones.
It has been found that those with blood sugar conditions tend to follow their diet and lifestyle recommendations more closely when compared to those that do not have these issues.
Stress and Weight
Stress has also been shown to have a strong correlation with unintentional weight gain.
The hormones associated with the stress response can increase hunger from an expectation of needing more energy. When this additional energy consumed goes unused, it leads to weight gain.
Obesity is a risk factor associated with a higher incidences of both kidney disease and kidney stones.
This is not to say that weight alone will cause kidney stones or kidney disease. Other factors that contribute to unintentional weight gain are likely factors.
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.
Because of this, stress is measured on a “perceived scale.”
This means the way one perceives the events that happen in life affects stress levels. That can mean different things for different people.
So, for those that perceive high levels of stress, how does that affect the kidney?
Many wonder if their kidney stones were caused by stress, or if there is a connection between stress and kidney stones at all.
The Evidence of Stress and Kidney Stones
Stress has been connected with kidney stones for years.
In fact, stress can change urine composition. The change results in more kidney stones.
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
- uric acid
- blood cortisol
- urine calcium levels
- risk of metabolic syndrome
Another study looked at calcium oxalate stone formers. The research suggested that those with chronic stress may trigger a biological response from the body that encouraged participants to get stones again.
This shows the higher risk of developing kidney stones again when stress levels are higher.
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?”
If you’ve ever had a kidney stone, you’re probably thinking “Of course, I’m very stressed about my kidney stones.”
Is there a vicious cycle of stress and kidney stones?
A study 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.
However, that is not to dismiss the stress you may experience with kidney stones. It’s worth working on stress management if kidney stones are causing chronic stress.
Stress has so many factors and individual perceptions. It’s important to look at chronic stress as a primary driving factor for kidney stones.
How to Cope with Stress
Everyone deals 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.
Oftentimes, therapy from a qualified professional is the answer. Whatever the preferred method of stress relief, find time for it regularly to reap the benefits. Here are some ideas to help.
Physical Stress Management Techniques
Exercising can be a great way to relieve stress. Pick a favorite type of movement to get the heart rate up.
That can mean biking, walking, going to the gym, tai chi, yoga- whatever you would look forward to.
Having a pet or companion animal has been shown to decrease 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.
Does a diet have to be perfect 100% of the time? Not at all.
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t focus on nourishing the body, including the kidneys, properly.
Unsure What to Eat? Take a Kidney Stone Nutrition Course
The Kidney Stone Nutrition School* is an online course by renal dietitian Melanie Betz. We have partnered with her in the course to offer this to more kidney warriors.
You’ll get access to on-demand video content, meal plans and recipes, and worksheets to help you find the best kidney stone nutrition plan for you.
Mental and Emotional Stress Management Techniques
Seek Professional Support
Everyone can benefit from seeing a therapist routinely. Having a person that is trained to provide support, stress-management techniques, and an unbiased perspective can be incredibly refreshing.
Speak with your healthcare provider about seeing a therapist. Many health insurance plans cover therapy sessions.
Deep Breathing & Meditation
Deep breathing, whether through a guided meditation or just a few self-guided deep breaths can do wonders for the body.
So often nutrition and exercise are thought of as having the biggest impact on health. That being said, connecting with breathing can do wonders for health too.
One study found that deep breathing helped reduce stress and improve productivity.
Take just a couple minutes to practice deep breathing before heading into a big project may help you out a bit.
Find a quiet spot. Close the eyes. Take a deep breath and get reconnected. Focus on things to be grateful for in life, big or small.
Struggling to find gratitude in your life? Download this FREE 4-minute guided gratitude meditation. Get reacquainted with yourself and your body while lowering stress levels.
Try this quick gratitude meditation when you are stressed. Gratitude meditation can be done in the car before or after work, before bed, or any time during the day.
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 the mind can help us understand how we are feeling.
Gratitude journaling is the practice of writing down things one is grateful for.
Examples could include having a place to live, having strong legs that help with walking, or a certain person that means a lot.
Gratitude journaling has been shown to lower stress levels.
Grab a cute journal from a favorite small business and start writing. Set a SMART goal while you’re journaling to help set an intention for the day.
So Can Kidney Stones be Cause by Stress?
Stress is a normal part of biology and helps protect us. However, stress can become a chronic issue and lead to other health concerns like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, poor sleep and other health conditions that can impact kidney health.
Stress can cause changes in our urine composition that may lead to more kidney stone formation.
Some evidence also suggests that those with chronic stress may be at higher risk for recurrent stones. This is important for people that have already experienced at least one kidney stone.
Practicing stress-reducing habits like enjoyable exercise, deep breathing, playtime with a pet, meditation, enjoying nourishing foods, and journaling are all examples of how to control stress levels.
If you don’t know where to begin when it comes to eating to prevent kidney stones, we highly recommend taking a nutrition course specifically about kidney stones.
Join Kidney Stone Nutrition School
If you have experienced calcium oxalate or uric acid kidney stones before and want to stop the stone cycle, you need to join Kidney Stone Nutrition School*.
This is an online course that teaches you nutrition and lifestyle fundamentals to prevent another kidney stone from happening, all taught by a renal dietitian.
Jen Hernandez is a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in renal nutrition. She has nearly a decade of experience with kidney disease patients in all stages - from stage 1 through kidney transplant. Jen writes on the blog of Plant-Powered Kidneys to help reach and teach more kidney patients about how they can enjoy more foods in a plant-based diet while protecting kidney health.