Why diabetes leads to dirty, damaged kidneys

There’s no denying that diabetes is very dangerous for your kidneys. In fact, diabetes is the leading cause of kidney disease. About one in four people with diabetes has it. And as a result, they often go on to develop kidney failure.

Why exactly is diabetes so damaging to the kidneys?

Well, the prevailing theory is that high blood sugar damages blood vessels in your kidneys… and damaged blood vessels don’t work as well. But there may be more to the story than just that…

A new study shows that diabetes may prevent the kidneys from performing a function that’s critical to their health — cleaning out wastes.

Diabetes stalls the kidneys’ natural cleaning process

Over the years, research has produced conflicting information about diabetes’ impact on something called autophagy in the kidneys. Autophagy is a natural cleaning process that occurs throughout your body. During autophagy, wastes (like misfolded proteins and damaged mitochondria) are placed in a double-membrane sack and destroyed by enzymes. By clearing these wastes out, your cells and organs can function at their optimum levels.

Now, some studies show that autophagy goes up in response to diabetes. Other studies show that it goes down. A new study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, however, shows that technically, it does both… before ultimately sending autophagy into a downward spiral that leads to kidney damage.

The study was conducted on mice with and without diabetes. Researchers gauged the amount of autophagy taking place by looking at an autophagy biomarker known as protein LC3. Protein LC3 is found in the membranes of those sacks where wastes are placed before they’re destroyed by enzymes.

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They found that autophagy levels were the same in diabetic and non-diabetic mice for the first nine weeks. Two weeks later, autophagy was slightly lower in diabetic mice. And eventually, it became significantly lower. The diabetic mice went on to develop larger kidneys with signs of damage, scarring and inflammation… so it seems that the reduced rate of autophagy was taking its toll. Ultimately, the mice developed kidney failure, just like so many people with diabetes do.

Researchers decided to take things one step further and knock out their autophagy gene altogether… and things went from bad to worse. The kidney enlargement and failure accelerated. But when they reactivated the gene, conditions started to mildly improve again.

How to protect your kidneys from diabetes-related damage

So, how can you protect your kidneys from damage if you have diabetes?

Well, as much as I’d like to provide an easy method for keeping autophagy happening at a healthy pace, that’s not something we have access to quite yet. But there are some scientifically-proven ways to reduce your odds of developing kidney disease if you have diabetes, like:

  • Being a non-smoker
  • Following a healthy, well-balanced diabetes eating plan
  • Moderating your salt intake
  • Staying active
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

If you accomplish everything on the list above, it should help keep your blood sugar well-controlled. And maintaining well-controlled blood sugar is one of the best ways to prevent diabetes-related kidney disease.

It should also keep your blood pressure healthy. And that plays a huge role in keeping your kidneys healthy as well. In fact, people with diabetes are more likely to have high blood pressure, and it’s a real double whammy for your kidneys since both conditions cause kidney damage. So, do your best to live a healthy lifestyle and hopefully, you can keep your blood sugar, blood pressure and kidney health in check.

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Diabetes dramatically reduces the kidney’s ability clean itself — MedicalXpress.

p53/microRNA-214/ULK1 axis impairs renal tubular autophagy in diabetic kidney disease — Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Diabetic Kidney Disease — National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.