The People's Perspective on Medicine

For Healthy Kidneys, Avoid Sugary Drinks

Sugary drinks put a strain on the kidneys, especially when the weather is hot or people are exercising hard. Unsweetened beverages may be better.
Sweet beverages

Usually, people are advised to drink plenty of liquids to keep their kidneys healthy and functioning well. A new study suggests, however, that sugary drinks are more of a problem than a help.

What Is the Evidence on Sugary Drinks?

The Jackson Heart Study included 3003 African-American adults (Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, online Dec. 26, 2018). All had normal kidney function at the beginning of the study. After approximately eight years, about six percent of these people had developed kidney disease.

The volunteers filled out questionnaires about food and drink when the study began. Those who consumed the most sugar-sweetened beverages, including sweetened fruit drinks, were 61 percent more likely to be diagnosed with kidney disease than those who drank the least sweetened drinks. That is a relative risk. However, once the data were adjusted for dietary patterns, the increased risk (37 percent) was not statistically significant.

This is not the first research to suggest that sugar-sweetened beverages might harm the kidneys. Experiments in animals also suggest that sweet drinks can cause trouble.

Dehydration Research in Rats:

Rats were exposed to heat for an hour (American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, June, 2016). Since they had no access to fluids during this time, they became mildly dehydrated. The animals were then randomly assigned to drink plain water, water with the sweetener stevia or sugar-sweetened water. This contained fructose and glucose sugars equivalent to the amounts found in most soft drinks.

Rats that drank water sweetened with fructose and glucose consumed more fluid but were more easily dehydrated when the water restriction was repeated. They also were more likely to experience kidney damage as a consequence of the repeated dehydration.

The rats whose water was sweetened with stevia, a non-caloric natural sweetener, appeared no worse off than those drinking plain water.

How Should You Quench Your Thirst?

If humans react in similar ways, people should not rehydrate with sugary drinks like soda when the weather is hot. Plain water might be best except for those who are exercising heavily.

Marathon Runners Who Drink on Schedule:

For them, an electrolyte beverage might be prudent to avoid hyponatremia. Some long-distance walkers or runners who drink lots of water during their event end up with too little sodium in their bodies, since it too is lost through sweat. This can be a life-threatening situation. Experts recommend letting thirst guide fluid replenishment rather than sticking to a schedule.

Avoiding Hyponatremia:

Long-distance runners often worry about dehydration. But a survey of marathon runners suggests that they should also be concerned about drinking too much fluid (British Journal of Sports Medicine, June 2011).

Drinking water on a schedule instead of letting thirst prompt fluid consumption can dilute the sodium in the bloodstream to dangerous levels. This condition is known as hyponatremia. Symptoms include headache, confusion, nausea and vomiting, muscle weakness or cramps, loss of energy and even seizures and unconsciousness. At least a dozen runners have died of documented hyponatremia in the past several years. Instead of drinking on some predetermined schedule, runners may be better off drinking only when they’re thirsty. Moreover, they should count on water with electrolytes rather than sugary drinks to quench their thirst.

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    About the Author
    Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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    How do you control hypoglycemia with less sugar as not to harm your kidneys?

    A small handful of nuts should bring blood sugar back into good range without extra sugar. You may have to experiment on what works best for you. A slice of apple or pear might also do the job, and won’t harm your kidneys.

    I’m curious about the statement at the end of the third paragraph that says “However, once the data were adjusted for dietary patterns, the increased risk (37 percent) was not statistically significant.” Why was the risk not considered statistically significant? What does that mean? Thanks.

    You and I may see a big difference between a 61 percent chance of getting kidney damage from drinking sugary drinks as compared to 37 percent. But statistic looks at relative risk and data of dietary patterns between the two groups and that’s why it see the 24 percent difference as not being statistically remarkable.

    Maybe we should follow the golden W rule – walking for exercise and water for drink.

    * Be nice, and don't over share. View comment policy^