Every year, millions of Americans consume alcohol in excessive amounts, either on an ongoing basis or during episodes of binge drinking. Public health officials often highlight the impact heavy drinking has on organs such as the heart, brain, and liver. However, this dangerous practice can also have a major impact on kidney health. In some cases, the connection between malfunctioning kidneys and alcohol intake can be established even in people who only binge drink on occasion. In people affected by chronic alcohol abuse or alcoholism, renal problems are sometimes severe and potentially life-threatening.
Alcohol Abuse and Kidneys
While popular and legal for adults to consume, alcohol is, in fact, toxic to the human body. To avoid the potential for damage, the body breaks down the beverage and eliminates it from the bloodstream as quickly as possible. Much of this processing job falls to the liver. However, the kidneys also play an important role by filtering alcohol’s breakdown products and excreting them in urine.
As a rule, a healthy person who only drinks moderate amounts of alcohol every once in a while will not experience any kidney-related consequences. However, a real possibility for significant problems arises in people who drink in excessive amounts. Public health officials set a maximum safe level of weekly alcohol intake at four drinks per day and 14 drinks per week for men. Women have a maximum safe intake of three drinks per day and seven drinks per week. This standard applies to people who binge on alcohol, as well as people who maintain a general pattern of heavy drinking.
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Kidneys
As part of their everyday function, the kidneys help control both the amount of fluid contained in the body and the substances found in that fluid. These substances include crucial electrolytes such as chloride, potassium, and sodium. Without the right balance of electrolytes, a person can experience a range of unpleasant or dangerous symptoms that include:
- An accelerated or irregular heartbeat
- Nausea with or without vomiting
- Lack of energy
- Cramping or weakened muscles
- A confused mental state
Alcohol is a diuretic. This means that it increases the amount of urine produced by the body. On average, it takes about 20 minutes for alcohol intake to trigger this effect. In a person who drinks in large amounts, the diuretic impact can lead to a substantial acceleration of urine output. In turn, this heightened output can lead to a significant reduction in body fluid levels and the onset of an electrolyte imbalance. Long-term alcoholics, in particular, are at-risk for electrolyte-related renal problems.
The diuretic effects of drinking can also lead to dehydration. In fact, this reduction in fluid levels helps explain many of the symptoms of a common hangover. For people affected by alcoholism, dehydration can reach a level of severity that interferes with normal tissue and organ function. Additional short-term effects of liquor, wine or beer consumption can include:
- Stomach upset
- Low blood sugar
- Disrupted sleep
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Kidneys
Alcohol’s long-term effects on normal kidney function are related to the impact that heavy drinking has on the liver. Chronic, excessive consumption of alcohol-containing beverages can lead to the onset of two serious liver disorders known as alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis. Alcoholic hepatitis is a form of inflammation that can damage or kill liver cells. The condition affects roughly one-third of all heavy drinkers. Cirrhosis is a form of tissue scarring that leads to permanent liver damage. This scarring typically appears in people who have maintained a pattern of excessive drinking for a decade or more. Both alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis can lead to severe health complications or even death.
The presence of alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis can also lead to the development of something called hepatorenal syndrome. Doctors use this term to describe progressive kidney failure triggered by severe liver problems. In people with the hepatorenal syndrome, the kidneys no longer excrete sufficient amounts of urine from the body. In turn, this lack of adequate elimination leads to a dangerous spike in blood nitrogen levels. As many as 10 percents of all people hospitalized for liver failure also suffer from the condition. Its possible symptoms include:
- A form of abdominal fluid accumulation known as ascites
- Muscle spasms
- Unusually dark urine
- An unexplained increase in body weight
Unless treated by experienced medical professionals, the hepatorenal syndrome can lead to dire health problems such as:
- End-stage renal disease
- Heart failure
- Internal bleeding
- Multi-system organ failure
Direct Impact of Drinking on the Kidneys
Electrolyte imbalance is a prime example of the direct, short-term impact that excessive drinking can have on renal health. Another example of the potential harm is a condition called acute kidney injury, or AKI. This condition, caused by a rapid decline in normal organ function, can occur in anyone who goes on a drinking binge and consumes enough beer, liquor or wine to become legally intoxicated in two hours or less. It produces symptoms that can include:
- Low urine output
- Swollen lower extremities
- Unusual fatigue
- Breathing difficulties
- Unusual pressure or pain in the chest area
- Thinking difficulties
In a worst-case scenario, acute kidney injury can also lead to the onset of convulsions or coma. Most people with the disorder do not experience lasting damage when treated properly. However, some people develop ongoing renal issues.
Indirect Impact of Alcohol on the Kidneys
As noted, heavy intake of alcoholic beverages can lead to long-term renal damage as an indirect consequence of liver damage. There are also other indirect links between booze consumption and kidney function. For example, anyone who drinks heavily can undergo a notable increase in normal blood pressure. In turn, high blood pressure is widely recognized as one of the key factors in the development of serious renal problems. Even people who drink in moderate amounts can experience blood pressure elevations.
Also, some people may notice their kidneys hurting after drinking alcohol. This symptom is not generally the result of an acute kidney injury. Instead, it tends to stem from one of two possible indirect causes. In some cases, the underlying reason for the connection between kidneys and alcohol and back pain (i.e., flank pain) may be the presence of liver disease (i.e., alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis). In other cases, the source of the problem may be serious dehydration, such as that found in people with diagnosable drinking problems.
Recap: Does Alcohol Affect the Kidneys?
So, does alcohol damage kidneys? Given the extensive evidence, the answer to this question is undoubted yes for many people. Most of those who fall into the at-risk category qualify as heavy drinkers or sufferers of an official condition called alcohol use disorder. However, even moderate levels of consumption or isolated binging episodes can lead to problems in some cases. Current alcoholism statistics figures show that more than 15 million American adults, teenagers, and preteens have a diagnosable alcohol disorder. In other words, more than 5 percent of all people in this vast segment of the population have increased odds of developing renal problems at some point in their lives.