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By: S. Rennie, LPN

The functions of the kidneys are to filter the blood (a healthy kidney and can filter around 200 quarts a day1), removing anything not needed by the body and conserve or dispose of excess water and control the body's solute balance. This excess water - urine - carries out all unwanted or no longer needed materials from the body. Waste and water are removed from the blood drops at a time. These materials are collected in the bladder. When the bladder is full, it sends a signal to empty the bladder by urinating.1,2

The damage alcohol can cause the kidney in many ways. From damaging cells, enlargement of the kidneys, impacting on various hormones that control kidney function, and creating an ionic imbalance in the body that can affect metabolic processes negatively.2 Chronic alcohol consumption promotes liver diseases which in turn has even more negative effects on the kidneys, such as compromised sodium and fluid handling and kidney failure.3 Here we examine some specifics.

Ionic Imbalance. Sodium, potassium, phosphate and magnesium (i.e., electrolytes) make up the ionic fluid in the body. Alcohol increases urine production by slowing the release of ADH (antidiuretic hormone). This makes the kidneys less permeable to water, more water flows to the bladder. This increased loss of water upsets the balance of the electrolyte concentration and negatively affects the metabolic process. This can cause dehydration in chronic alcohol consumers. How much this balance is affected depends on the amount consumed, duration, the person's health and nutrition and the type of alcohol consumed.2,3

Beer is low in dissolved nutrients. When beer is consumed, large quantities of water enter the body that, in turn, lowers those already low metabolic nutrients. Too much fluid in the bloodstream decreases the electrolyte concentration and becomes dangerous, especially for the alcohol-dependent who also has liver disease.

The Effects of Decreased Ionic Concentrations

Sodium Potassium Phosphate Magnesium
Impaired mental activity. Increased Thirst Decreased blood acidity resulting in a breakdown of glucose and increased metabolic activity. Possible enzyme impairment
Seizure in extreme cases. Hormonal imbalance promoting fluid intake. Resulting low blood sugar.  

Source: Complications of Alcohol - Kidney Link

Hard alcohol (whisky, vodka, etc.) can increase the ionic concentrations in the blood. Again, the alcohol causes more water to leave the body through urination, but this time ionic concentrations left in the bloodstream quickly increase with the ions (mostly sodium) ingested with the hard alcohol. The impact of alcohol on muscles can cause them to release ions such as phosphate. Increased ions impact the water in the body's cells through osmosis that pulls the cellular water into the bloodstream to try to balance ionic concentrations. Thus, the cells become dry and can result negatively on their function.

The Effects of Increased Ionic Concentrations

Sodium Potassium Phosphate Magnesium
Osmotic flow of water out of body cells to areas of high sodium. Osmotic flow of water out of body cells to areas of high potassium. Creates a buffer imbalance in the blood. Possible enzyme Impairment.
    Increase in blood pH.  

Source: Complications of Alcohol - Kidney Link

One other effect on the ionic concentrations is age. Those over 50 can overcome the ADH suppression faster than those under 50. That means the younger consumers of alcohol can lose more water and suffer the ramifications more quickly.

While those chronic heavy consumers of alcohol suffer from some of the complications of alcohol, even one drink and cause an ionic imbalance.2

Alcohol consumption can also cause low blood levels of calcium, because more is lost through the urine. This happens as frequently as low blood levels of phosphate do. Convulsions and muscle spasms can occur as a result and if the respiratory muscles are involved, it could be life threatening.

High blood pressure in alcohol-dependent persons can occur when fluids and solutes accumulate. If alcohol intake is reduced, blood will go down. But when the alcohol consumption is increased again, the blood pressure increases along with it.

It has been noted that more research need to be done to further explain the effect of alcohol on the kidneys and their functions.


  1. Complications of Alcohol - Kidney Link.

  2. The Kidney. 03/31/98.

  3. Epstein, Murray, MD Alcohol's Impact on Kidney Function. Alcohol Health & Research World. Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 84-93, 1997.

This page was last modified on : 10/28/2013

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