(Learn more about the organs of the human bodies in other posts in the Viscera series here: https://jineralknowledge.com/tag/viscera/?order=asc)
Despite being a vital organ that one cannot survive without, the kidneys are not very famous to the general populace. Not many people know what the kidneys do, let alone where exactly they lie in the body. The kidneys (of which there are two) are the major excretory organs of the human body. They are found in the back of the abdomen (in an area called the retroperitoneal space), tucked under the lower three ribs below the diaphragm. This is higher than where most people think the kidneys lie, because the abdomen extends quite high into the ribcage, as seen from the location of the liver.
The kidneys undertake many functions, but they can broadly be grouped into three groups: making urine, filtering blood and maintaining homeostasis.
Although the organ associated with urine is the bladder, it only stores urine, which is made by the kidneys and sent to the bladder via the ureters. Urine is the body’s main way of disposing excess water, salt and other byproducts such as urea. The kidneys fine-tune how much water we lose to urine depending on how much water is in the body. For example, if you drink a lot of water, the kidney senses the blood vessels being dilated and the blood being diluted, then allows more water to leave the body. Conversely, if you are dehydrated, the kidney does everything in its power to hold on to as much water as possible, resulting in concentrated urine.
The kidneys literally act as filters for the blood using a fine, intricate network of sieve-like blood vessels. These vessels have walls that have various sized holes that causes water and small molecules to pass into the kidney, while leaving large proteins in the blood. The filtered blood (containing water, various electrolytes and other metabolites) travel through a pipe network called nephrons, which reabsorb things the body needs (like water when you are dehydrated or salts like sodium), while leaving toxic products like urea and various medications.
Lastly, the kidneys maintain homeostasis (the status quo of the body) in various ways, such as fine-tuning the water and salt levels of the body. If you have renal failure where your kidneys do not function properly, you will retain too much water and may suffer a build-up of potassium, which can cause fatal changes in your heart rhythm. It is also involved in controlling the acidity of your blood and your blood pressure, through very complex mechanisms.
One way kidneys are famous is that they are popularly mentioned in the context of organ transplants. If you have renal failure, you may be able to get a kidney from a healthy, live donor as you can live with one kidney. When you take out a kidney from a healthy person, the remaining kidney will grow in size to compensate for the other kidney, while the transplanted kidney will go on to save the patient’s life by doing the many jobs mentioned above.