What Urea Test Levels Can Reveal About Your Health
Urea is an important measure of our kidney health, liver health, and protein turnover. A urea blood test is often ordered as a part of a comprehensive metabolic panel, which gives a broad overview of a person’s metabolic and overall health. Continue reading to discover more about urea and what high or low levels mean for your health.
What is Urea?
Blood urea levels represent the balance between urea production (in the liver), urea breakdown, and urea elimination/removal (by the kidneys) [R].
Therefore, urea is a useful indicator of kidney health and/or liver health. It is also used to check for severe dehydration.
The urea test is often ordered for people who are experiencing signs and symptoms of kidney disorders. These symptoms can include:
- Frequent urination
- Discolored urine (bloody, dark, or foamy)
- Joint pain
- Bone pain
- Back pain
- Muscle cramping
- Restless legs
- Trouble sleeping
- Poor appetite
- Swelling (especially in the extremities)
Urea Normal Range
In Europe, the whole urea molecule is measured. Normal human blood should contain between 1.8 – 7.1 mmol/L.
In the United States only the nitrogen component of urea is measured (the blood urea nitrogen, i.e., BUN), which is roughly one-half of blood urea [R]. The normal range for BUN is between 5 – 20 mg/dL.
To convert from mmol/L into mg/dL, divide by 0.357.
The range is wide because there are many factors that affect blood urea levels [R]:
- the amount of protein in the diet
- protein breakdown
- state of hydration
- liver urea production
- urea elimination by the kidneys
Low Urea Levels
Low urea levels are often not of great concern. However, in some cases, they point to underlying issues:
- Low-protein diet, malnutrition, or starvation [R]
- Impaired liver activity due to liver disease, often linked to alcohol abuse [R, R]
- Overuse of anabolic steroids, which decrease protein breakdown [R]
- Overhydration, or drinking too much water [R]
- Growth hormone use. Growth hormone-deficient children given human growth hormone have lower urea, and this is due to decreased urea production [R, R]
- Genetic deficiency of urea cycle enzymes [R]
Urea can be decreased in pregnancy [R].
How to Increase your Urea Levels
Low urea levels can mean that you are not consuming enough protein. If this is the case, try to increase your consumption of protein-rich foods like lean meats or beans [R].
Reduce alcohol consumption. Alcohol blocks the production of urea [R].
High Urea Levels
High urea levels can result from serious underlying health conditions and diseases. In addition, elevated urea is bad in its own right.
High urea means there is increased protein breakdown, which is associated with decreased immune function. In a study of 26k patients, those with elevated urea had an increased risk of infection and a higher risk of dying [R].
Elevated urea is also associated with increased stroke risk in heart surgery (5498 subjects), and adverse outcomes in atherosclerosis (1521 subjects) and heart failure patients (225 patients) [R, R, R].
Blood urea levels increase as we age [R].
Levels can also rise in pregnancy [R].
Causes of high urea levels include:
- Dehydration/low water consumption – Urea increases as blood volume decreases [R]
- High protein diets [R]
- Fever or infection, which increases protein breakdown. Increased protein breakdown is a common feature of illness. Protein breakdown is stimulated by hormones (such as glucagon, epinephrine, and cortisol) and inflammatory cytokines. Protein production, on the other hand, is reduced by lowering growth hormone, insulin, and testosterone levels [R, R]
- Inflammation or interval training, which results in protein breakdown from muscle
- Stress – An inappropriate increase in the activation of the sympathetic, renin-angiotensin-aldosterone, and vasopressin systems elevate BUN, which is often seen in heart failure. Cortisol will also increase protein breakdown and elevate BUN [R, R]
- Gut bleeding – When upper GI bleeding occurs, the blood is digested to protein. This protein is transported to the liver and metabolized to BUN [R, R]
- Poor circulation, which results in lower blood flow to the kidneys and therefore less of an ability to clear the urea [R, R]
- Thyroid issues, which result in abnormal kidney function: hypothyroidism, and hyperthyroidism [R, R]
- Anti-anabolic drugs such as glucocorticoids and tetracyclines (except doxycycline) [R]
- Lower growth hormone or IGF-1. IGF-1 and growth hormone inhibit urea synthesis [R]
- Kidney disease or failure, and blockage of the urinary tract by a kidney stone [R]
- Inborn errors of metabolism (genetic urea cycle disorders) [R]
How to Decrease your Urea Levels
There are two easy ways to decrease your blood urea levels:
- Drink more water (stay properly hydrated)
- Eat less protein
Supplements that can help decrease urea:
- Ginger may help remove urea from the blood. Ginger extract markedly decreased BUN in mice [R].
- Pomegranate [R]
- Flaxseed oil (may protect the kidneys, decreases BUN) [R, R]
- D-ribose [R, R]
- Ashwagandha [R, R]
- Curcumin [R]
People go to their doctor to get their urea tested as part of a standard panel. Almost always, the results are not scrutinized, even though we know that you can be healthier and live longer when your results lie within optimal ranges. When I used to go to doctors and tried to discuss my results, they had no clue what these meant from a health perspective. All they cared about was whether they could diagnose me with some disease. This is why we created Lab Test Analyzer, a tool that easily lets you know which lab results you need to be concerned about, and how to bring these within the optimal range.