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Why Southerners Have a Higher Risk of Kidney Stones

February 14, 2017

If you live in the South, you’re more likely to have a kidney stone than someone who lives in a milder climate.

Kidney stones, which affect nearly 10 percent of Americans, are deposits made of mineral or acid salts that form inside the kidneys or other parts of the urinary tract. The primary function of the kidneys is to remove waste from the body and balance the water and electrolyte content in the blood, but kidney stones stall this process.

Kidney stones can form for several reasons, including obesity, when there’s too much mineral or uric acid buildup in the urine or as a result of a urinary tract infection or a rare genetic disorder.

Why Southerners are More Susceptible to Kidney Stones

We often refer to the Southeastern part of the country as the “Stone Belt” because people who live in these areas have a greater likelihood of developing kidney stones. Southerners have a higher risk of this condition because the warm weather makes them more susceptible to dehydration, which causes fluid loss and low urine volume that facilitates the formation of stones. One study that tracked adults and children living in South Carolina over a 16-year period found that among an at-risk population of more than 4.6 million people, children had double the risk of developing kidney stones and women had a nearly 45 percent lifetime risk of developing the condition. Population studies also have shown that Southerners are 50 percent more likely than people in other parts of the country to develop kidney stones.

Other contributing factors may include poor diet, not drinking enough water and obesity. Research included in the National Institutes of Health review of the global prevalence of kidney stones suggests that dietary changes may be a key factor in why more people have kidney stones. Increased consumption of animal protein worldwide and increased intake of sodium have paralleled increased rates of stone disease in several countries, including the United States. High sugar consumption and not eating enough calcium-rich foods also may increase your risk. The Southern diet is filled with food and drinks like iced tea, okra, spinach and other high-oxalate foods that contribute to stone formation. This diet also contains many high-sodium foods, another risk factor for kidney stones.

How to Lower Your Risk of Kidney Stones

Symptoms of kidney stones include a sharp, stabbing pain in the mid-back that occurs every few minutes, nausea and vomiting, pain in the lower abdomen, blood in the urine or a burning sensation when you urinate, frequent trips to the bathroom, fever and pain in the lower abdomen. If you experience any of these symptoms or severe pain as a result of them, it’s best to see a doctor as soon as possible. He or she can perform a blood or urine test or an ultrasound or stone protocol CT to confirm the diagnosis and give you medication such as an alpha blocker to help you pass the stone more quickly. However, most kidney stones don’t require medical treatment to pass on their own. In some people, passing kidney stones can be incredibly painful, but others just may need to drink more water (as much as three quarts a day) or take a pain reliever to pass a small stone.

Unfortunately, once you form a kidney stone, you’re more likely to form stones again. That’s why prevention is critical. There’s very little Floridians can do to control the weather here, so it’s best to focus on dietary changes to lower your risk. Limit your consumption of animal protein. When the body breaks down protein, this increases uric acid levels, which in turn may increase your risk of forming stones. Also reduce your salt intake. Sodium increases calcium in your urine, another risk factor for stone disease. People who often form calcium-oxalate kidney stones (the most common type of stone) should limit their consumption of oxalate, a natural compound found in foods like tea, chocolate, nuts and tofu. Oxalate can bind to calcium and form crystals in the urine, especially if there’s fluid loss. However, eating enough calcium can offset oxalate levels in your urine and prevent the formation of stones. Maintaining a healthy weight also lowers your risk for stone disease, so stock up on high-fiber, nutrient rich fruit, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein. These foods tend to be lower in fat, sodium and artificial sugars that can lower your risk of this condition.

The bottom line is that kidney stones are preventable with lifestyle changes and increasing fluid intake. Yes, weather increases your risk of stone disease, but monitoring your diet is the most effective way to avoid this condition and limit its recurrence. 

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