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Six ways to keep kidney stones at bay, from the Harvard Health Letter

There are worse things than kidney stones. But oh my, they can cause a lot of pain as they pass through the ureters, the tubes that connect the kidneys to the bladder. And the number of Americans getting kidney stones is increasing, perhaps because of the increasing prevalence of obesity. According to the September 2011 Harvard Health Letter, once you get kidney stones, the chances of getting them again are high, so it’s even better if you can avoid them in the first place with the following tips.

1. Keep your fluid intake up. Kidney stones form when certain minerals concentrate in the urine and form into crystals. Drink plenty of fluids (water is the safest bet) and you’ll increase the amount of water in the urine, so those mineral concentrations don’t get too high.

2. Eat calcium-rich foods. Calcium is a major component of most kidney stones, so it seems like you should avoid calcium in the diet, not seek it out. But most calcium stones are composed of calcium combined with a substance called oxalate. If there’s plenty of calcium in your diet, the calcium binds to oxalate in the intestine before the oxalate has a chance to get into your urine. Good choices for calcium-rich foods include nonfat dairy products, leafy green vegetables, and some varieties of fish (salmon, for example).

3. Reconsider calcium supplements. Results from the Harvard-based Nurses’ Health Study showed that postmenopausal women who took calcium supplements were 20% more likely to develop kidney stones than women who didn’t. Findings published earlier this year from the Women’s Health Initiative, a large randomized trial, echoed those of the nurses’ study. One explanation for calcium in food and calcium pills having different effects is that when calcium is consumed in food, it’s more likely to be present in the intestine at the same time as oxalate, so it can interfere with its absorption.

4. Moderate your sodium intake. Low-sodium diets decrease excretion of calcium and oxalate.

5. Moderate your protein intake. Protein can increase calcium and oxalate excretion. High-protein diets may reduce levels of stone-inhibiting substances in the urine.

6. Moderate your oxalate intake. Calcium intake and other dietary factors seem to be more important than oxalate intake in forming kidney stones, but high oxalate intake can occasionally be a factor. Oxalate-rich foods include beets, chocolate, spinach, rhubarb, and most nuts.

Read the full-length article: “In brief: Avoiding kidney stones”

Also in this issue of the Harvard Health Letter

  • More than the usual forgetfulness
  • Conversation with a Harvard expert
  • Adult food allergies
  • Stress and overeating
  • In Brief: Fiber on a winning streak
  • In Brief: Avoiding kidney stones
  • Wake up and use the microwave, Health Letter, say our readers
  • Ask the doctor: Is abdominal surgery riskier if I am overweight?
  • Ask the doctor: Have I given up steak for nothing?

More Harvard Health News »

About Harvard Health Publications

Harvard Health Publications publishes four monthly newsletters--Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Men's Health Watch, and Harvard Heart Letter--as well as more than 50 special health reports and books drawing on the expertise of the 8,000 faculty physicians at Harvard Medical School and its world-famous affiliated hospitals.