African Americans constitute more than 35 percent of all patients in the U.S. receiving dialysis for kidney failure. (Courtesy of Baltimore.gov)
African Americans constitute more than 35 percent of all patients in the U.S. receiving dialysis for kidney failure. (Courtesy of Baltimore.gov)

In 2004, director Morgan Spurlock undertook a study to determine the impact of fast food on the overall health of Americans. Consuming a diet of only McDonald’s food for a month, Spurlock captured the slow metabolic changes our vital organs go through to process foods high in sodium, sugar, fillers, and unnatural additives. Spurlock gained 24 pounds, and showed signs of both kidney and liver distress, in addition to mood swings and a loss of sex drive.

In one critical scene, Spurlock’s physicians warn that his liver function tests suggested NASH – or non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, a condition commonly called “fatty liver,” which does as much damage to the liver as alcohol-induced cirrhosis.

Super Size Me followed the tenacity of programming like the BBC4 show, You Are What You Eat (also broadcasting in 2004-2007), that used science – blood panels, food absorption tests, and stool samples to chart the impact foods had on the body’s major organs. Host Gillian McKeith impressed upon different guests each week the importance of eating healthy to avoid trauma to organs – especially the kidneys.

More importantly, recent studies, including the 2011 Perceived Discrimination and Hypertension Among African Americans in the Jackson Heart Study conclude that racism may play as much a part in the development of kidney ailments as diet.

“Although traditional biobehavioral risk factors might explain some of the African American—White disparity in hypertension, differences in exposure to discrimination by race might also contribute. African Americans’ exposure to discrimination could influence their risk for hypertension through various mechanisms,” its authors Mario Sims, Ana V. Diez-Roux (et.al) noted. “These include negative coping behaviors, such as unhealthy eating, sedentary lifestyles, and tobacco and alcohol intake. The experience of discrimination could also cause emotional distress, which can trigger physiological responses involving the hypothalamic—pituitary—adrenal axis and the sympathetic—parasympathetic systems, which play an important role in the pathophysiology of hypertension.”

In short, racism is linked to the development of hypertension – and kidney disease. So, whether kidney disease and kidney failure are related to food intake or outside stressors, the reality is that its prevalence among African Americans show few signs of improving. Millions now face life with impaired kidneys or the need for a transplant.

Despite its prevalence, few fully understand the functions of the kidneys or the importance of their proper operation. For instance, legendary performer Tina Turner recently underwent both dialysis and a kidney transplant after ignoring admonishments from her physician to manage her hypertension. In fact, Turner decided to disregard the diagnosis and discontinue taking prescribed blood pressure medication.

“I tried to understand my kidney’s purpose, and why it was important. Something, to be honest, I’d never thought about before,” she writes in her memoir, My Love Story. “The consequences of my ignorance ended up being a matter of life or death. If I hadn’t discontinued the medication, if, if, if… A small decision but one that would continue to haunt me.”

Understanding kidney function, dialysis and kidney transplants immediately brought Quandra Lee to mind. I met Lee more than 20 years ago. Then, as now, the first thing that stands out and sticks with you when you meet Lee is her infectious laugh. Always the optimist, she became a transplant recipient, first as a teen – and a second time, as an adult, some twenty years later. For this Washington Informer Supplement, writer Lindi Vilakazi sat down with Lee to discuss life post-transplant and the importance of living fully. Additionally, our writers penned works on maintaining kidney health, including insight from dialysis leaders DaVita Integrated Kidney Care — all to offer readers a better understanding of how kidney health works toward overall good health.

Dr. Shantella Y. Sherman

Dr. Shantella Sherman is a historian and journalist who serves as the Informer's Special Editions Editor. Dr. Sherman is the author of In Search of Purity: Eugenics & Racial Uplift Among New Negroes...

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