The kidneys are a pair of bean-shaped organs located at the bottom of the ribcage to the right and left of the spine. They are part of the urinary tract and perform a few essential roles and functions within the body.
- Within the kidneys are about a million tiny blood filtering units called nephrons. In each nephron, blood is continually filtered through a cluster of looping blood vessels, called a glomerulus, which allows the passage of water and small molecules but retains blood cells and larger molecules.
- Attached to each glomerulus are tubes (tubules) that have a number of sections that collect the fluid and molecules that pass through the glomerulus, reabsorb what can be re-used by the body, add other molecules through a process called secretion and, finally, adjust the amount of water that is eventually eliminated along with the waste as urine.
- Besides eliminating wastes and helping to regulate the amount of water in the body, these activities allow the kidneys to maintain normal chemical balance in the body. Among the important substances the kidneys help to regulate are sodium, potassium, chloride, bicarbonate, calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium. The right balance of these substances is critical. When the kidneys are not working properly, the concentrations of these substances in the blood may be abnormal, and waste products and fluid may build up to dangerous levels in the blood, creating a life-threatening situation.
- Kidneys also have a number of other miscellaneous roles in maintaining a healthy body including the production of a hormone that stimulates red blood cell production (called erythropoietin), production of a hormone that helps maintain a normal blood pressure (called renin), and turning one form of vitamin D into a more active form, which enhances calcium absorption.