Blog post

Slowing down kidney disease: It can be done

Nine years at stage 3 kidney disease and holding — Gail Rae-Garwood shares her experience about slowing down kidney disease.
Gail Rae-Garwood headshot

When a new family doctor told me nine years ago that I had a problem with my kidneys — maybe kidney disease — my first reaction was to demand, "What is it and how did I get it?"

No doctor had ever mentioned kidney disease before. I was diagnosed at stage 3; there are only five stages. I had to start working to slow it down immediately. I wanted to know how medication, consuming kidney-friendly foods and fluids, exercise and other lifestyle changes could help. I did not want to be told what to do without an explanation as to why, and when I could not get an explanation that was acceptable to me, I started researching.

I read just about every book I could find concerning this problem. Surprisingly, very few books dealt with the early or moderate stages of the disease. Yet these are the stages when we are most shocked, confused and maybe even depressed — and the stages at which we have a workable chance of doing something to slow down the progression of our kidney disease to kidney failure.

I have learned that 37 million Americans — 1 in 7 people — have kidney disease, but most do not know they have it. Many, like me, never experienced any noticeable symptoms. Many, like me, may have had high blood pressure for years before it was diagnosed. Yet, high blood pressure and diabetes are the two leading causes of kidney disease.

I saw a renal dietitian who explained to me how hard protein, phosphorus, and sodium are on the kidneys. Out went my daily banana: too high in potassium. Out went restaurant burgers: larger than my daily allowance of protein. Chinese food? Pizza? Too high in sodium. I embraced an entirely new way of eating because it was one of the keys to keeping my kidneys functioning in stage 3.

Another critical piece of slowing down kidney disease is medication.

I was already taking medicines to lower my blood pressure when I was first diagnosed with kidney disease. Two more prescriptions have been added to this in the last nine years: a diuretic that lowers my body's absorption of salt to help prevent fluid from building up in my body (edema) and a drug that widens the blood vessels by relaxing them. For a very short time, I was also taking a drug to control my pre-diabetes, but my doctor and I achieved the same effects by changing my eating plan even more (bye-bye, sugars and most carbs). The funny thing is now my favorite food is salad with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar! As a former chocoholic, I never thought that would happen!

Exercise — something I loved until my arthritis got in the way — was also important. I used to dance vigorously several nights a week; now it is once a week with weights, walking and a stationary bike on the other days. I think I took sleep for granted before kidney disease, too, and I now make it a point to get a good night's sleep each day. A sleep apnea device improved my sleep — and my kidney function rose another two points.

I realized I needed to rest, too. Instead of giving a lecture, running to an audition and coming home to meet a deadline, I slowly started easing off until I did not feel like I was running on empty all the time. I ended up happily retiring from both acting and teaching at a local college, giving me more time to work on my kidney disease awareness advocacy.

I was sure others could benefit from all the research I had done and all I had learned, so I wrote my first book, What Is It and How Did I Get It? Early Stage Chronic Kidney Disease, in 2011. I began a blog after a nephrologist in India told me he wanted his newly diagnosed patients to read my book, but most of them could not afford the bus fare to the clinic, much less a book. I published each chapter as a blog post. The nephrologist translated my posts, printed them and distributed them to his patients — who took the printed copies back to their villages. I now have readers in 106 different countries who ask me questions I had not even thought of. I research for them and respond with a blog post, reminding them to speak with their nephrologists and/or renal dietitians before taking any action... and that I am not a doctor. 

Each time I research, I am newly amazed at how much there is to learn about kidney disease and how many tools can help slow it down. Food is the obvious one. But if you smoke or drink, stop or at least cut down. If you do not exercise, start. Adequate, good quality sleep is another tool. Do not underestimate rest, either; you are not being lazy when you rest, you are preserving whatever kidney function you have left. I am not particularly a pill person, but if there is a medication prescribed that will slow down the gradual decline of my kidney function, I am all for it.

My experience proves that you can slow down kidney disease. I was diagnosed at stage 3 and I am still there, nine years later. It takes knowledge, commitment and discipline — but it can be done and it is worth the effort. I am sneaking up on 70 now and know this is where I want to spend my energy for the rest of my life: kidney disease awareness advocacy. I think it is just that important.