The Anatomy of the Urinary System and how you can maintain an organically healthy waste system in your body

By Jon Barron

The urinary system is the Rodney Dangerfield of the body: it gets no respect. Medical doctors pay worship to the cardiovascular and nervous systems; alternative healers pay homage to the colon and practice ancient detoxing rites. But who thinks about the urinary system? Who pays attention to the kidneys until something goes wrong? And make no mistake, things go wrong. When it comes to the urinary system, we’re not just talking about kidney stones and kidney failure, which affect millions of people in the United States alone, but more significantly kidney sludge, which compromises kidney function in virtually every adult living in a first world country. And we’re also talking about infection and inflammation in the urinary tract, not to mention incontinence in the bladder.

In this series of newsletters on the urinary system, we will examine not only the anatomy and physiology of the kidneys, but also the ureters (which convey waste from the kidneys), and the bladder (which stores waste until it can be excreted). But more importantly, we will use our newfound understanding of how everything works to explore those things that can go wrong in all areas of the system — some life threatening, and some merely compromising of life quality — and how we can use natural therapies to overcome those problems.

Background

The National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse estimates that each year more than 100,000 Americans are newly diagnosed with kidney failure. More than a half million currently have End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD), and an astounding 20 million have physiological evidence of chronic kidney disease. The United States has the highest incident rate of ESRD in the world, followed by Japan. As per NHANES III (Third National Health and Examination Survey), the prevalence of chronic kidney disease is a mind numbing  .8% among patients older than 70 years. And that’s just in America. Internationally, the incidence rates of end-stage renal disease (ESRD) have increased steadily since 1989.

But it’s not just End Stage Renal Disease. Kidney stones, one of the most painful conditions known to man, have beset humans for centuries. Scientists have found evidence of kidney stones in a 7,000-year-old Egyptian mummy. Unfortunately, kidney stones are one of the most common disorders of the urinary tract. Each year, people make almost 3 million visits to health care providers in the United States alone and more than half a million people go to emergency rooms for kidney stone problems. And worldwide the incidence of kidney stones, although less than that of the U.S. and Japan, has been steadily increasing.

And then, as we move on down the urinary tract, we find disturbingly high levels of conditions such as:

  • Interstitial cystitis
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Incontinence

According to a 2009 Rand study, as many as 8 million women in the U.S., or 3% of all U.S. women, suffer from interstitial cystitis and suffer from debilitating symptoms. And although the incidence in men is less, it is still afflicts over 1.5 million men in the U.S. alone. Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are considered to be the most common bacterial infection. Statistically, almost half of all women will experience one UTI during their lifetime.  Approximately 75 percent of all women can look forward to experiencing at least one vaginal yeast infection during their lifetimes. And as for urinary incontinence, most studies report some degree of urinary incontinence in 25-45% of women and 11-34% of older men.

Make no mistake, the urinary system may be treated like Rodney Dangerfield, but its impact on our lives is a lot more like Rambo.

The Urinary System

The colon and the urinary system are like yin and yang. They are polar opposites, but at their cores, they share common purpose. Whereas the colon is primarily responsible for excretion, with a secondary function of conserving water, the urinary system is all about preserving homeostasis through conserving water and electrolytes, with a secondary function of excreting toxins. It is composed of the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra. The kidneys are the primary filtering and rebalancing organs in the body. The ureters are the conduits to the bladder from the kidneys. And the bladder stores urine and waste until it is convenient and socially acceptable to dispose of them — unless you’ve had too much stout to drink and you’re caught far away from the loo. In addition, by virtue of its ability to regulate homeostasis, the urinary system also plays a major role in regulating some of the body’s most important systems. For example, the urinary system is a primary player in maintaining blood volume, normal blood pressure, normal blood composition, and normal body and blood pH. And if that weren’t enough, it also synthesizes and secretes calcitrol, the hormonally active form of vitamin D used by the body to regulate blood levels of calcium, and erythropoietin, a hormone that promotes the formation of red blood cells in the bone marrow.

Let’s begin our exploration of the urinary system by taking a macro view of the organs.

Kidneys

Position-wise, the kidneys are paired organs lying to the right and left of the spinal column. They are entirely retroperitoneal, which is to say they sit behind the peritoneum (the tissue that lines the abdominal wall and covers most of the organs in the abdomen). Since it is pushed down by the liver, the right kidney (the left side in most illustrations) sits lower than the left kidney. Curiously, the kidneys do not parallel the back, but actually angle in towards the belly button. This allows them to take advantage of the natural protection offered by the backbone and the big muscles that run along the spine, since the kidneys actually nestle in against those anatomical elements.

Although the kidneys themselves are permeated with a vast arterial network, required as we will see to support their functions, they are nevertheless each supplied by only one pair of blood vessels (the right and left renal arteries and veins). This leads to a curious contradiction. With only one blood vessel leading in and out, it makes each kidney easy to remove or transplant. On the other hand, because each kidney contains so many blood vessels internally, any wound to the kidney causes profuse bleeding and is difficult to repair. In other words, replacement is easy, but surgery on the organ itself is extremely difficult — although skilled surgeons can remove diseased sections of a kidney because there is so much internal collateral circulation.

The kidneys are vital organs. You need at least one to survive. Fortunately, because they are so vital, your body has built in redundancy. Not only can you survive on just one kidney, but if you lose kidney function, up to a point, the kidneys have the ability to transfer more load to the remaining parts that are still functioning. If, on the other hand, your kidneys totally shut down, you will die…but not instantly. You can survive for 2-4 days after total kidney failure. This time lag allows for hemodialysis, about which we will talk more later. The key point to understand for now is that because you don’t die instantly without kidney function, it allows patients to come to a dialysis center just 2-3 times a week instead of having to be hooked up to a dialysis machine 24/7.

As we mentioned already, the primary function of the kidneys is not to excrete waste like the colon, but to maintain balance and internal stability in the body by cleansing the blood. The medical term for balance is homeostasis — or as the astronauts say in The Right Stuff, “to maintain an even strain.” Basically, the kidneys take everything except blood cells (red and white) that pass through them and filter it out. Then they pick up signals from the body telling them what needs to be actually eliminated from the body and what needs to be preserved to maintain homeostasis. Then based on these internal signals, they put everything that’s required back into the system. Everything else is excreted in the urine. Or to explain it another way, the kidneys work using a two step process. In step one, they remove everything from the blood. In step two, based on signals from the brain and body, they reabsorb all necessary components in the quantities required to achieve balance. The signals come from receptors that track everything from dissolved bio-chemicals to blood pressure, from pulse to temperature, and much more.

Things that the kidneys filter and regulate include waste, solutes, toxins, proteins, amino acids, water, electrolytes, and parts of the pH buffering system — notably bicarbonate. They also recycle necessary elements and maintain normal blood volume, blood pressure, normal blood composition, and blood and body pH. And as already been mentioned, they synthesize calcitrol for bone building and erythropoietin for production of red blood cells.

 

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