You may have heard the term EPO in the news related to athletes and drug use to enhance performance. ErythroPOietin (EPO), a hormone produced by the kidneys, helps us to make red blood cells. If we don’t have enough red blood cells, then we don’t get enough oxygen delivered to important areas such as the heart, lungs, and muscle. Because of EPO’s role in making red blood cells to increase oxygen carrying capacity in the body, some athletes use EPO injections to improve physical performance. But aside from being disgraced for cheating, such athletes put themselves at great risk for health problems. There are ways to train the body to better utilize the red blood cells’ oxygen carrying capacity, such as training at higher altitudes. This type of training must be done with expert guidance.
When the kidneys are damaged, however, they do not make enough EPO, and therefore, not enough red blood cells. For those with advanced kidney disease or kidney failure this can result in fatigue and other symptoms such as shortness of breath. This is why EPO is often given to people suffering from these conditions.
People without kidney disease have a very well controlled system that tells the kidneys to make as much EPO as the body needs. But it’s very important to know that the drug form of EPO for patients with kidney disease must be given with great caution. The EPO dose is decided upon after careful review of the patient’s symptoms, lab results, and overall health. You might need EPO to help you feel better, but too much can lead to heart problems and stroke. Always discuss how you feel with your healthcare team, and do ask plenty of questions about EPO.
For the average person, the best way to optimize your kidneys’ ability to make EPO is to just keep your kidneys healthy! Get a urine test to see how well your kidneys are working. Stop smoking. Eat healthfully, and lose weight sensibly if you need to. Stay well-hydrated with enough water to keep your urine looking as light as possible. This is really important when you exercise heavily or sweat a lot. If you already have kidney disease, please check with your doctor to know if you need to have a fluid restriction. And EXERCISE…this is crucial for training your body to use your red blood cells as efficiently as possible!