Kidney health

Living healthily

The best way to try to prevent mild or moderate kidney impairment from worsening is to live as healthily as possible. This includes eating a healthy diet, being physically active, keeping to a healthy weight, not smoking, and limiting alcohol intake. It is also very important to keep blood pressure under control, as even small increases in blood pressure can have a big impact on kidney health. This means that if a doctor prescribes any tablets or medicines for blood pressure, it is important to take them regularly (see ‘Controlling blood pressure’). People we spoke to knew from information in the media how to follow a healthy lifestyle.

Jackie Z had picked up information in the public domain about healthy lifestyles, including limiting salt intake, so had not discussed this with any health professionals.

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Age at interview: 70
Sex: Female
Have you had any discussions about your lifestyle – so exercise, diet, smoking, drinking with any health professionals?

Well I don’t smoke and I hardly drink at all so no not really [laughs]. Exercise certainly because I do that but no, I haven't needed… no. Weight loss is always a problem because I don’t move very easily. But this is where the gym is a huge improvement because I can't walk. I can ride an exercise bike, so I do that.

Mm and have you been advised on food, diet, what to eat?

Oh god yes. I know all the rules; it's following them that’s the problem! [laughs] yes.

And is that something you just know from, you know, your own information gathering or is it something that the nurse or the doctor has discussed with you?

I’ve been- I've been going to classes on and off, various groups for years so that’s why I know all the rules.

Do you mean dieting type of classes?

Yes so and the best one I've been to is the Rosemary Conley diet and fitness group, local one in [suburb] and I lost four stone. And then I hurt my back and gradually it crept back on again because I couldn’t exercise. That’s the same story everybody gives you, I'm sure.

But hasn’t your GP or nurse haven't particularly sat you down and talked about what you should eat or avoid?

No because she knows I know.

Mm. Have you been given any advice on keeping up your fluid intake or avoiding salt?

…Well not specifically no. But again, I mean I know that! There's plenty of information on the television and in the shops and what not. And my husband and we try to keep a low salt diet… for him so… because he's been told to keep salt down so we do. In fact we have a lower salt diet than a lot- I don’t like prepared foods; you know that you can buy because it always tastes salty so we're always having less salt than they are.

Mm so you're cooking from fresh?

Mm oh yes, yes. Not for the last month while my kitchen's being put in but yes.
Some people had been advised by a health professional to make changes to aspects of their lifestyle; others said they had been asked about aspects of their lifestyle by a professional but not specifically advised to change anything. However, these conversations had rarely taken place in the context of a kidney disease diagnosis, but rather when discussing other health problems the person had. Many people said lifestyle had never come up in conversation with a health professional and any measures they had taken to improve their lifestyle had been done on their own initiative.

Ethelbert doesn’t remember ever being given any verbal or written information on what he should or should not eat; he enjoys his food and eats whatever he wants whenever he wants it.

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Age at interview: 94
Sex: Male
Have you had advice on keeping your fluid level up, making sure you drink enough?

Well, I drink plenty.

You drink plenty anyway, do you?


But you haven’t been told explicitly that that’s what you should do.

No. no, no.

Have you been given any guidance on what to eat, diet, that sort of thing.


By a doctor or a nurse.

No special diet.

And you’ve not have some sort of general consultation or some leaflets about healthy eating from your doctor?

No, no. I cook what I want, when I want and what I want.


And I eat it, everything that I fancy.

And would you say that you eat a healthy diet? or just an enjoyable diet?

What I eat I enjoy and other people enjoy it too [laughs].

[Laughs] You sometimes cook for friends as well?

Yeah and my daughter comes here every Saturday, she and her partner.

And my grandchildren, great-grandchildren come in here and when I tend to bake bread for them all, that sort of thing.
There was a common feeling that more advice from their doctor about ways to maintain their kidney health would be useful (see ‘People’s ongoing information and support needs’). To learn about the changes people made to their lifestyle see ‘Lifestyle changes’.

Another way that some people chose to look after their general health was to use certain complementary therapies or remedies alongside conventional medicine. For instance, some used chiropractic or massage for musculoskeletal aches and pains. Margaret sometimes uses a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machine to relieve the pain from her rheumatoid arthritis. She also uses tea tree oil for skin wounds, and lavender oil to help her get to sleep at night. At various times in her life Laura had tried psychotherapy, homeopathy, acupuncture, and herbal medicines. She also does reiki (a Japanese system of natural healing) accompanied by a visualisation of her kidneys being completely healed. Jim B had used Chinese medicine for many years to treat headaches and other ailments although this had not always been approved of by his doctors. He also used meditation, diet and exercise in an attempt to keep as fit and well as possible in a bid to postpone the need for dialysis for his stage 5 kidney disease.

Alongside taking blood pressure tablets Laura has tried homeopathy, herbalism, psychotherapy and acupuncture. These have helped her in various ways and her kidney condition has remained stable.

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Age at interview: 60
Sex: Female
I also tried various different types of therapies, I had homeopathy for a bit, I went to a herbalist for a bit, but I think actually the most important thing that I did as regards to complementary, well for anything really, was I went, I got therapy, which I tried to get on the National Health but the only thing they would give me on the National Health was joining a group of people with kidney disease. And I decided I didn’t want to do that because if I saw people that had failed it would make me believe that I, that’s all that was going to happen to me, and I didn't want to do that; I didn’t, I wanted to believe that I wasn’t going to have kidney failure and therefore hopefully I wouldn’t.

So I had private therapy, I had therapy from somebody who was training, so it was cheap at the time, cheaper, and then it got more expensive. And I actually think that was really, really important. And the thing that I think might have helped to cause my kidney disease was that I was a very nervous person. I’m a lot less nervous now, but I was very nervous for most of my life, and still was nervous at the time when my kidney disease was diagnosed. So I think that fear, that constant fear may have damaged my kidneys because my body was in constant fear and therefore, you know, it affected them. Whether that’s right or not I don’t know but that’s my , what I believe or I think could have helped to cause it, and my therapy concentrated on that, so has helped me quite a lot.

And so with that and taking blood pressure tablets, I don’t seem to have changed very much in the 16 years. I had a little panic about five years ago when it seemed that my creatinine was getting more, it seemed like I was getting, my kidneys were getting worse, and I then went to get acupuncture and I’ve been having acupuncture ever since, which isn't as bad as it seems - it doesn’t actually hurt to put the needles in, it’s when they tweak them, they tweak the needles and you go, “Oh”. And I get that about every six weeks, and in a way you don’t know whether it’s doing anything but I think acupuncture’s good for me anyway and she seems to help with other things.

Jim B chose to manage his health problems through diet, exercises and a healing type of meditation learned from a Chinese medicine practitioner, alongside conventional medicine, but this caused conflict with his doctors.

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Age at interview: 70
Sex: Male
And one of the things that my, my wife and I have been interested in for a long time is alternative medicine. Not because we’re nut cases, not because we’re, you know, completely into living an alternatively but because we haven’t always found the treatments available to us on the Health Service effective, so we turned elsewhere. And also because we didn’t actually find in the interviews that the GPs provide necessarily the level of interest in us as people that when you go to an alternative practitioner particularly the one that we did go to they were shown. And so we actually found from a man in Chinese medicine that he was able to sort out problems that [my wife] had, problems that [my wife’s] friends had, and also problems that I had over a number of years prior to 2005. When he’d particularly, I have chronic headaches for about four or five years, I got a job when I was working here in, where I live now, I started to get these, these headaches every afternoon.

And then when I went down to London they got worse and also I started to have a prostate condition. Anyway, through various ways this man this practitioner treated me. And in the end after about four or five years - because it’s always slow, you know it’s not a, not invasive, the invasion it’s actually, it’s working with the body to try and generate a curative response from within the body - the headaches went. And I am completely convinced that it was due to the treatment. So I was confident in that treatment. But I had, because I’m a very open person, I had actually talked to the, well both to, at the renal unit and in the, in meetings with the doctors in the surgery. I explained to them clearly that I was, you, I was occasionally using alternative medicines. Now that went down extremely badly in the renal unit and went extremely badly with the GP.

And yet I remained confident and optimistic that I could maintain my health by not doing, as so many people at my age will do, that is relying on, on prescribed medicines, you know, I didn’t want to do that. And so in dealing with blood pressure and in dealing with the blood in urine, but more, most particularly with blood pressure, I was very keen to do that through exercise and through diet and through meditation and through all various things. So there was a conflict that particularly with the doctor who says that he told me about CKD because he was very opposed to all of, oh to that way of, well, to that alternative medicine. And I used the word, in fact, I said alternative and I found that’s the wrong word to use, it should be complementary because of course it wasn’t alternative, it was complementary. And it was always complementary. And I never went exclusively to ooh to the one, I used both. But of course western medicine wants to be exclusive and wants to actually dismiss these alternative, the, the alternatives which are also complementary.
Complementary approaches to dealing with ill health have been less thoroughly tested than conventional medicines, or not tested at all, so their effects are not proven in the same way. However, they seem to help many people to cope with feelings of stress, anxiety and depression and promote a sense of well-being. There is growing evidence that certain complementary treatments, such as acupuncture, may also reduce some side effects of certain conventional medical treatments. As the word 'complementary' suggests, these approaches should be considered an addition to and not an alternative for conventional medical treatment. People with kidney impairment who are considering using complementary remedies, such as herbal medicines, should discuss this with their doctor beforehand.

For more about complementary medicine see NHS Choices.

Some people we spoke to used dietary supplements, such as vitamins or cod liver oil. Remedies for colds or indigestion were also bought over the counter when needed, as were painkillers such as paracetamol. A few had painkillers prescribed by their GP. Peter had been able to buy antibiotics over the counter when he lived in Spain, but in the UK these are only available on prescription. Some people were wary about taking over-the-counter products because they could cause unwanted effects or interfere with conventional medicines they were taking.

Since a pharmacist advised Jill not to treat catarrh with any over-the-counter products because they could interfere with her conventional medicines, she always seeks advice before buying anything.

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Age at interview: 77
Sex: Female
Do you use any over the counter medications or complementary therapies?

No because now I’ve had a terrible attack of catarrh and I went to the chemist and said what would he advise? “Could I take this, that and the other.” And he said, “No, you can’t take any of them.” So I am limited to what I can take and I always ask the pharmacist.

Well, not always because I, that was the one and only time I think I wanted something and he was adamant that, he said, you know, “I don’t think you can take that bit, you can speak to your GP about it.” But the pharmacist here is so good that I decided that I’ve just got to suffer it and it comes and goes.

So you’re quite careful now with what other medications you’re taking.

Yes, I wouldn’t take any medications without advice because it doesn’t, they do interfere I think with things.
Last reviewed August 2017.
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