Chronic stress can lead to the formation of kidney stones, solid clusters of minerals that may block the flow of urine or cause immense discomfort.
Stress can occur any time your mind or body feels challenged. When you experience stress, several physiological processes engage, creating what’s known as the stress response.
This cascade of reactions includes almost every system in your body, speeding up heart and respiratory rates, redirecting blood flow, and increasing the production of hormones that help with immediate bodily recovery.
Short-term stress can be beneficial, helping you achieve goals and navigate difficult situations.
Long-term stress, however, also known as chronic stress, can have some negative health impacts, including an increased chance of developing kidney stones.
How it starts
Several hormones increase when your body initiates the stress response, including vasopressin and adrenocorticotropin (ACTH). These, in turn, stimulate the production of other hormones like cortisol and parathormone.
Among their other effects on the body, these hormones can raise calcium levels, decrease urine volume, and create a hypertonic, also known as solute-concentrated, urine state.
Concentrated urine means a higher volume of waste products to fluid, creating an environment where minerals may be more likely to bind together to form stones.
Under acute stress, these physiological changes are temporary. Even if urine is concentrated, the stress response ends before your body has a chance to start kidney stone formation.
Prolonged stress, however, can keep your body in a state of agitation where urine concentration, hormone production, and mineral increase remain long enough for kidney stones to form.
Stressful events can be a risk factor for kidney stone formation years before you experience symptoms of a kidney stone.
Another prominent factor in how stress can cause kidney stones is dehydration.
When you’re feeling extremely stressed, for example, your body may suppress thirst as a way of prioritizing other important physiological functions associated with escape or survival.
Not meeting your body’s hydration needs means urine naturally becomes more concentrated. More concentrated urine can encourage the buildup of minerals associated with kidney stones.
High blood pressure
Increased blood pressure is another immediate response to stress that can cause damage to your body — and kidneys — over long periods of time.
Stress can make you reach for high calorie, high fat foods, and may make you more likely to store fat compared to when you’re relaxed.
In the American Psychological Association’s 2021 Stress in America report, 42% of adults reported unintended weight gain related to prolonged stress in the past year.
Obesity can increase your risk for diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. These conditions may put strain on the kidneys, increasing the chances of damage and disrupted function that may contribute to kidney stones.
Kidney stones are solid, stone-like accumulations of minerals normally transported in urine. Though called “kidney stones,” these mineral bundles can appear anywhere in the urinary tract.
Some kidney stones are small, like a grain of sand, while others can grow to be large enough to cause bleeding or urinary blockage.
Also known as renal calculus or a nephrolith, a kidney stone is classified by its mineral makeup. The four common types of kidney stones include:
- calcium stones
- uric acid stones
- struvite stones
- cystine stones
Calcium oxalate, a subtype of calcium stones, is the
Stress may be a contributing factor in kidney stone formation, but you can develop kidney stones for a number of other reasons including:
- hereditary factors
- medical conditions
- inadequate water intake
You may have an increased chance for kidney stone development if you meet any of the following criteria:
- are a biological female
- have a diet high in fish, shellfish, or organ meat
- experience other urinary blockages
- have a family history of kidney stones
- have been diagnosed with a kidney stone in the past
- live with chronic bowel inflammation
- have a history of digestive conditions or gastrointestinal surgery
- have recurrent urinary tract infections
- take long-term diuretics or calcium-based antacids
- experience prolonged usage of certain anti-seizure and HIV medications
Certain medical conditions may also increase the chances of developing a kidney stone. These include:
Not all kidney stones will cause symptoms. Some stones may pass through your urinary tract without causing any discomfort.
When symptoms do emerge, they may present as:
- blood in the urine
- burning sensation during urination
- urination urgency
- pungent, foul-smelling urine
- cloudy urine
- persistent, extreme pain in your back or side
- fever and/or chills
- inability to urinate or interrupted urine flow
Your healthcare team can determine the location, size, and severity of kidney stones through urine tests, blood screenings, and diagnostic imaging.
If there’s no immediate risk to organ function or health, your doctor may increase your fluid intake to see if the stone will pass naturally. In some cases, such as with severe dehydration, you
When kidney stone removal is necessary, a urologist can opt to break the stone into smaller, passable pieces or remove it entirely using:
- ureteroscopy-guided extraction
- percutaneous nephrolithotomy (tunnel surgery)
- shock wave lithotripsy
You may require the placement of a ureteral stent or nephrostomy tube to encourage urine flow or the passing of stone pieces.
Once the kidney stone has been passed or removed, your healthcare team can send it to a lab for identification. Your urologist will likely monitor your urine output postsurgery to determine mineral concentration and volume, important clues into the underlying causes of kidney stones.
Can stress cause kidney stones? Yes, prolonged exposure to the physiological stress response can increase your chances of kidney stone development.
Concentrated urine, mineral production increase, high blood pressure, and food-related coping are all survival mechanisms that can negatively impact your kidney health over extended periods of time.
While some kidney stones can pass on their own and without symptoms, some may require medical attention or surgical removal.