THE BLOG
04/09/2014 08:25 am ET Updated Jun 09, 2014

5 Key Health Insights Your Urine Can Offer

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2014-04-01-bathroom3_moresmlr.jpgDiscussing bodily functions is a well-ingrained part of any physician's vernacular. As a nephrologist, or kidney specialist, I often find myself talking about urine, because well, one of the main jobs of the kidneys is to filter wastes and toxins from our bloodstream. And all those wastes and toxins need somewhere to go once they have been removed from our systems. The result? Urine.

On average, the kidneys filter 200 liters of blood each day. When the kidneys are healthy, this is quite an efficient process, so around 198 liters of blood return to the system. Usually, the kidneys are such experts at their jobs that many people don't even think about them as they go about their regular business, eating, drinking, living and going to the bathroom (yes, that's where the other two liters go). The kidneys' complex filtration system is always striking a balance between keeping the minerals and chemicals your body needs to function efficiently and getting rid of the rest via the urine.

I'm eager to help you get better acquainted with your kidneys, including their urine byproduct. Cue the PG-rated potty joke. I'll leave that one and the resulting laugh it likely will elicit up to you, but it's important to mention that no matter how you look at it -- with your naked eyes, under the microscope, or (gasp!) not at all -- urine contains valuable information about your health. So if you're not already thinking about or looking at your urine, it's time to start doing so. Don't flush valuable health information down the toilet without first learning about 5 key health insights your urine can offer:

  1. The all clear. Literally and figuratively. The color or "concentration" of your urine can tell you whether you're hydrated and you should aim for clear urine. If your urine is dark yellow, it is more concentrated and you could be dehydrated. When people are dehydrated, the kidneys try to conserve fluids in the body and as a result don't produce as much urine. Dehydration can also cause kidney stones, because it allows for stone-causing minerals to concentrate and settle in the kidneys and urinary tract. One of the best measures you can take to avoid kidney stones is to drink plenty of water, resulting in passing lots of clear urine.
  2. Colors and scents may mean follow up. No need to break out the color wheel, but if your urine is no longer a shade of yellow, this could be a sign of something very serious, like blood in your urine, or may just reflect a change in diet, which is why it's important to know your "urine norms." You should pay attention to whether urinary changes coincide with any dietary changes.

    Seeing pink? If you recently ate beets or foods with beet-based dyes, your diet could be the culprit. The presence of red blood cells can also make your urine appear more pink, red or "cola-colored," so it's important to recognize your body's normal reactions to different foods and medications. Also, it's not just beet-based dyes that can show up in your urine. The same holds true for food dyes of many colors, so keep this in mind. Does your urine have a funny smell?

    Diet may also be to blame. Certain foods, such as asparagus, can impact the appearance and scent of your urine. The same holds true for medications and supplements. Vitamins can cause a musty odor to the urine. Urine can offer clues into your health, but it's critical to know when to follow up with your healthcare provider so that in the event of a more serious condition, such as blood in the urine, you obtain the necessary testing and diagnosis.

  3. An early marker of kidney damage. Protein in the urine is one of the earliest signs of kidney damage, especially in people with diabetes. Protein in the urine may create excessive bubbles in the urine that will not flush away. At your annual physical, be sure to ask your health care provider for a urinalysis to check for protein in the urine, especially if you're at increased risk for kidney disease due to age (over 60), diabetes, high blood pressure or a family history of kidney failure.
  4. Signs of diabetes. The word "diabetes" means passing urine frequently in large amounts. When there is too much sugar in the bloodstream and the body isn't processing it effectively, the kidneys work overtime to try and remove it from the body. If your urine has a "sweet" smell, it may indicate that sugar is present in your urine. Sugar in the urine can indicate diabetes or pre-diabetes, so it's important to get additional blood testing to confirm (or deny) a diagnosis. Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney disease and even pre-diabetes can damage the kidneys, so these are serious conditions that deserve your attention and treatment.
  5. The presence of an infection. A urinary tract infection (UTI) occurs when bacteria (germs) get in the urinary tract and multiply. The urinary tract is made up of the bladder, urethra, ureters and kidneys. Bacteria usually enter the urinary tract through the urethra, the tube that carries urine out of the body. If a UTI is not treated promptly, bacteria can move up to the kidneys and cause a more serious type of infection. Symptoms of UTIs include an urgent need to urinate (often with only a few drops of urine to pass), a burning feeling when urinating, cloudy or blood-tinged urine and a strong odor to the urine (especially the odor of ammonia).

For more information about urine and the kidneys, visit the National Kidney Foundation at www.kidney.org.

Have you ever noticed anything abnormal in your urine? What did you do as a result?