I’d like to tell you a little story. It’s about a wake up call that kickstarted my health journey. It all began on a Tuesday morning. The year was 2004. I was in graduate school in New York City (NYC) at the time..
Kidney stones symptoms
It was an average winter day. I was sitting in class when I felt the urge to pee, so I went to the bathroom. I came back to class relieved, or so I thought. Minutes later, I felt the urge to go again, so I wandered back into the bathroom. With time, I began to notice some pulsating-like sensations in my lower abdomen. It was as if I had to pee but couldn’t expel all the urine I had. This was weird but not alarming, at least not yet.
After a few trips back and forth between class and the bathroom, I began to feel really uncomfortable. My side was now hurting. As time went on, it felt like I had sprinted the NYC marathon without any preparation or training whatsoever. As I got more uncomfortable, I shifted to the bathroom floor and closed the stall door behind me. Just so you know, I don’t make a habit of sitting on dirty bathroom floors, particularly not right next to a toilet. But, I was that uncomfortable and thought I might vomit.
My father’s appendix burst before when he was 25, well before I was born. He still had the scar to prove it. My dad talked about how painful that was when it happened. My pain was in a similar area, so my first thought was that the same thing had happened to me. Like father, like son.
I called my school to see if we had a nurse onsite. We didn’t. I largely had the bathroom to myself. When someone did wander in, I was not in a state to interact with them. The bathroom door stall was closed, so I was essentially invisible. I also didn’t want to alarm anyone. I contemplated calling myself an ambulance, but wondered if I really needed one if I could make the call myself. I also didn’t have any health insurance at the time. I’ve heard how expensive a ride in an ambulance can be so that wasn’t an appealing option. 3 hours came and went as I sat on that bathroom floor clutching my side. I threw up 3 times.
I remembered that there was a hospital only 2 blocks away in moments of clarity. Having volunteered there a few years prior, I knew exactly where the ER entrance was too. If I could just make it there, I should be okay. It took some time to get up, throw my backpack over my shoulders, and talk myself into taking that march to the hospital. It was a short walk and I was very focused on getting to my destination. Thankfully it wasn’t rush hour so I didn’t have to maneuver around many people.
When I got to the emergency room (ER), they asked me way too many questions. They insisted that I sit in a chair, but I could barely sit. I was very uncomfortable, like an uncooperative child who refused to sit, but they needed me to sit up straight while they took my vital signs. When I got up, I had to throw up again and let loose on the ER floor. That’s one way to get them to take you more seriously! I certainly didn’t do this on purpose. I was just feeling worse and worse.
Baby it’s cold inside
I was starting to shiver and felt really cold. Someone told me I looked very pale. I wanted nothing more than to lie down and to warm up. I was later told that I was going into shock. Not good! The ER staff finally let me have my way. They laid me down in a bed and put a heated blanket over me. I was given some Vicodin and finally started to feel some relief from all the pain.
Hours later, I was “back to normal” or should I say, stable. I wasn’t shivering anymore. They had me sitting in a wheelchair which felt excessive, but I assumed they didn’t want me straining myself in any way. My side was still really sore and the soreness lasted for days.
Hours later, they gave me an ultrasound. That’s when they told me what they found. Apparently I had just passed a kidney stone. What’s worse is that they noticed some formations in my other kidney, suggesting that another might be on the way soon. That’s all I needed, another stone.
I took home the bottle of Vicodin they gave me, thankful for developments in medicine like this. At the same time, it made me wonder if western medicine was in some way to blame for problems like this in the first place. Nobody should have to suffer like this. Compared to others, I wasn’t subject to other common kidney stones symptoms such as: nausea, blood in your urine, painful urination, etc.
The other side
I carried that Vicodin with me wherever I went, just in case. I couldn’t bear to be in pain like that again. Every little sensation in my abdomen put me on high alert. Was I about to pass that other kidney stone, I wondered? I was extremely vigilant. Exactly 2 weeks later, around the same time of day, and in the same class, I felt the familiar desire to pee. Once again, I used the bathroom, but wasn’t able to fully relieve myself as before. Rinse and repeat. Fortunately, I was better equipped this time around.
While in the bathroom wondering if I was passing another kidney stone, a classmate wandered in. I briefly told him what happened 2 weeks prior. He suggested that I go home. I took his advice. I popped a Vicodin and took the subway home hoping for the best.
Long way home
Luckily the subway was fairly empty at this hour. That allowed me to lie down on the seats which were flat, like a long bench that could seat as many as you could squeeze in. A few people looked at me in wonder, but this was just another day in NYC for most. I was managing much better than I was the first time. When I got to my subway stop, there was just another 10 minute walk and I’d be home. Almost there. In between heading down flights of the subway station steps, I let loose. I threw up right next to the ticket booth. So much for making it without throwing up this time. I somehow staggered home okay despite that but didn’t vomit again. Luckily the pain in my side was much less this time around. The Vicodin was doing what it was meant to do.
Caught in the act
When I got home, I pulled out my secret weapon. It turned out that someone at my internship had a history of kidney stones. Rumor was that he was hauled out of the office on a stretcher on a few occasions. When he heard what happened to me, he could certainly relate. He gave me a strainer like this so that I could try to catch my stone and get it analyzed at the lab. Don’t worry, it wasn’t used! This is what they look like in case you’re curious:
I somehow caught something, and was surprised that I peed out what looked like a small, white thing. Never having seen a kidney stone, I wasn’t quite sure if I actually caught a stone or not. It didn’t hurt coming out. The urologist who met with me sent it into the lab to get it analyzed. The next time we met, he confirmed that I had indeed caught a stone. It was the most common type of stone, made from calcium oxalate. He gave some dietary suggestions and I took serious note.
Foods that cause kidney stones
The urologist told me that foods that cause kidney stones include the following. Too many: leafy greens, nuts, iced tea, or animal products. I was definitely not overdoing the leafy greens. Nuts weren’t something I ate often unless they were part of a dish. I didn’t drink that much tea either. Animal products got me thinking though. I was eating them all the time and at practically every meal. I was eating meat regularly. That was when I decided to go vegetarian.
Diet to prevent kidney stones
I was vegetarian for a year or so, but was still not making the healthiest choices. I recall eating more bread and cheese to make up for not eating meat. During this time, I started working out with a personal trainer who insisted that I eat meat for better results. I slowly and reluctantly reintroduced it. First, it was one meal per week, then a few times per week. Eventually I was eating meat pretty regularly again. I found meat to be satisfying in a way that eating vegetarian wasn’t. It really grounded me.
Kidney stones and sugar?
Almost 20 years have gone by and I haven’t had another kidney stone. It seems like meat wasn’t the issue. So what was it? Well, there’s only one other possible smoking gun: kidney stones and sugar. That link is something I wondered about for a long time. But I dismissed since I was consuming so-called “healthy sugars” rather than added sugars.
Can sugar really cause kidney stones?
I was heavily juicing prior to passing my kidney stones. I had researched juicers quite a bit and used a high quality green star juicer. It added minimal heat to the process, ensuring that nutrients were retained at high levels, even after a few days in the fridge. 6 days per week, I’d consume a 20 oz organic juice that I made myself for breakfast. I juiced twice per week, and it took up to 2 hours each time given prep and cleaning time! It was always a different combination of mostly fruits, but I’d sometimes throw in vegetables as well. Occasionally I added greens like spinach or wheatgrass. The fruits and vegetables I juiced were organic whenever possible, so it was an expensive breakfast. People I interned with and classmates at school with were always curious about my juice of the day. They came in all sorts of interesting colors and scents.
But how does sugar cause kidney stones?
I realized that I was getting a lot of sugar, but without any fiber. You could never eat that much fruit before getting uncomfortably full. After juicing, I separated and discarded the pulp. If I remember right, my juicer’s instruction manual said that it could be composted or fed to cats. Juices without the pulp are referred to as “partitioned foods” by Dr. Weston Price, a dentist who died in 1948 and was called the “Isaac Newton of Nutrition.” You basically get a predominance of one aspect of a food, but lack another. According to Hal Huggins in Seeking Your Ancestral Diet, juices tend to increase calcium levels while decreasing phosphorus levels in the blood. There is a combination of these 2 chemicals in the blood that produces a building block for bones and teeth. If something makes your calcium levels go up and/or your phosphorus levels go down, this results in uncombined calcium available for precipitation (a solid formed by a chemical reaction). In your mouth, it could create dental calculus (hardened dental plaque). While in your blood vessels, it could result in a hardening of your arteries. In your kidneys, it could lead to kidney stones. Your genetics determine where to precipitate. It all made sense now.
In my case, sugar caused kidney stones. I’m pretty certain of that now. That explains why I haven’t had any since. In fact, one of my blog posts is about why smoothies are better than juices. Hint: it’s the fiber content.
Kidney stones symptoms vary from person to person. The foods that cause kidney stones aren’t necessarily the same for everyone. Thus, a diet to prevent kidney stones will differ from person to person to some degree. Cutting back on sugar is probably a good idea for anyone. Too much sugar might lead to other health issues. Whether it’s something mentioned above, or other issues like prediabetes or even diabetes itself. Either way, having too much sugar can be harmful even when it seems healthy.
Have you ever had a health issue or health scare because of sugar? Please share in the comments…