Thanks go to three of my clients who just this week asked questions that boil down to:
What the pH?
We hear all about skin balancing through cleanser commercials, alkaline diets through so-called “clean eating” websites, alkaline waters mostly on the bottled water shelves or aggressive multi-level-marketing companies, or maybe you retained a basic understanding of pH from biology or chemistry. The idea of balancing your inner pH is trendy and spawning all manner of products in health food stores.
But what does being “pH balanced” or “too acidic” or even “too alkaline” really mean?
Beneath the “trendiness” lies the fact that the Standard American Diet is overloaded with foods that are acid-forming—foods that form acidic chemicals when digested or when processed within cells.
Why does this matter?
Because every enzyme, cell process, hormone, and system works best in a very defined level of acidity or alkalinity:
- Cells divide and replace themselves with new healthy cells at a correct rate only when their internal pH is correct—the same for healthy bacteria in various gut regions.
- Inside each cell, enzymes that digest foods, manufacture hormones, and eliminate toxic waste, do so only when the pH is correct.
- Outside each cell, hormones bind and give instructions only when the pH is correct.
- And in some cases, having inappropriate cells, like cancer, can make the environment outside itself quite acidic—your body tries to fix this.
The great debate
And if you “google” this subject, you’ll find controversy:
Argument #1: Our bodies are equipped to counterbalance a certain amount of acidity. In other words: you can’t change the pH of your body no matter what you do because it automatically self-corrects.
Argument #2: Sure, but to self-correct the body needs to pull its resources away from what it should be doing. Including and especially keeping bones strong and fighting cancer.
Argument #3: There is almost no actual research to either support or disprove these ideas.
Think for yourself
When they learn about the pH trend, my patients often ask, “When it comes to health, what role does pH really play?” Some proponents would have you believe that balancing your pH will cure all health woes. While pH is one of many factors I look at when considering a person’s health, I never consider it in isolation. It’s too simplistic an approach and fails to take into account the complex role pH plays in our physiology. That said, it is an essential factor in our overall health equation, so let’s take a look at how pH imbalance affects us — and what we can do to correct it.
Understanding the pH scale
The pH scale measures acidity in terms of how many hydrogen ions (H+) or hydroxyl (OH-) ions are in a solution. If the OH- concentration is greater than H+, the material is alkaline and the measured pH is greater than 7.0. If equal amounts of H+ and OH- ions are present, the material is neutral, and the measured pH is 7.0. If more H+ than OH- ions, then the material is acid and the measured pH is less than 7.0. The decimal point matters.
When something measures pH 7.0 that means it is perfectly neutral. Readings less than 7.0 are acidic (with 0 being the most acidic) and readings above 7.0 are alkaline (with 14 being the most alkaline).
As we increase or decrease the pH reading, each whole number change is 1000x more hydrogen (H+) or 1000x more hydroxyl (OH-). Biologically speaking, that is a huge change and can make or break whether a cell can live or an enzyme can work.
Body pH balance
Inside your body, different areas have different amounts of acidity (or pH). There is no one “correct” reading for the entire body.
Your skin is healthiest at a pH of 5.5 (acidic). Your skin needs to be slightly acidic to deal with environmental factors like bacteria and other toxins.
In order to properly process the food you eat, our digestive tract starts with saliva at an ideal pH of 7.4 (slightly alkaline), then drops to pH 1.5 in the stomach, jumping to pH 6 at the start of the small intestine before increasing to pH 7.4 in the terminal ileum (where the small intestine joins the large intestine). In the colon, pH drops again to 5.7 at the juncture of the small and large intestine and then rises to nearly 7.0 towards your rectum. This is biological necessity as digestive acids make the proteins and fats we eat available for digestion as well as kill off unwanted parasites and other pathogens in the harsh pH 2.0 environment of our stomach.
When the body is in good working order, human blood reveals a narrow pH window of about 7.35–7.45 (slightly alkaline). Other parts of a healthy, well-functioning body will show still other pH readings.
Why? Because different parts of our bodies serve different purposes. Each of these purposes and their related processes requires a particular acid–alkaline environment for optimum function.
Keep each organ optimally acid or alkaline for its optimal function
Most practitioners and home testing instructions check the pH of blood, saliva, and/or urine—substances we can test easily. This has led to the mistaken belief that pH levels are static throughout the body, when in fact they are not.
Doctors worried about heartburn or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disorder) grab esophageal and gastric pH meters.
The mistake lies in testing them once. In order to get the full picture of your body’s pH, these tests need to be done repeatedly. Not just once on one day, but over a period of time to provide a window into what is going on in your internal world.
Balance and maintain the pH level of your body to ultimately promote better well-being.
I fully agree that most people could benefit by addressing their acid–base balance, but before anyone begins megadosing on supplements or downing gallons of alkaline water, they need to define their individual needs. Balancing doesn’t happen in a vacuum and it also doesn’t happen overnight.
The confusion and controversy: Enthusiasts of the “pH miracle” say that living in the modern world—with its reliance on refined grains and sugars, corn-fed beef, and unhealthy fats—means we are all overly acidic. To rectify this, we should focus all our attention on restoring “healthy pH,” by which they mean a blood pH of 7.35–7.45.
The controversy lies in understanding how much it takes to change blood pH and ignoring the changes occurring in other cells, organs, and systems.
Your body will protect blood pH and keep it within the 7.35 and 7.45 range at the expense of all other systems. To do this, your body will leach minerals, especially calcium, from your bones and other places.
You may think it’s acid — but it’s not
Whether a food is acidifying or alkalizing can require some mind-bending, because some foods that we think of as “acidic” are, in fact, alkalizing, like lemons for example. It isn’t so much where the food itself falls on the pH scale, but what happens when it is processed in the body. Even though we think of citrus as acidic, fruits like lemons and tangerines are alkalizing because when they’re consumed, they break down and donate alkaline mineral salt compounds like citrates and ascorbates.
Foods we might normally think of as meek and mild in nature are acid-forming when ingested, like grains and milk for examples. The pH of the food as it goes into our bodies isn’t important; what is important is the resultant pH once the food is broken down.
Acid isn’t all bad…
Let’s start with your stomach: The acidic environment of the stomach is not only necessary for processing food, but it also helps to protect your body from pathogenic organisms or food antigens that shouldn’t be there.
Sadly, people with heartburn or acid reflux—conditions conventional medicine blame on excess acid—actually have too little acid in their stomachs. Don’t like meat? Pepsin, the enzyme responsible for protein breakdown, needs an acidic environment; it is released into the stomach and is effective only when pH is very low (2.0–1.5). If the stomach never drops to the very low pH of 1.5-2.0 then enzymes like pepsin can’t work. Foods don’t digest well and instead ferment, putrify, create gases and bloating—and heartburn. Taking Pepcid, TUMS Prilosec or Nexium increases alkalinity in the stomach—exactly the opposite of what is needed. Your stomach needs to make more gastric juices to process the foods; it needs to acidify the food in the stomach to digest proteins and fats, and releasing minerals. That very low pH also kills unwanted pathogens.
We need protein: but they are acidifying…
Protein—especially red meats—needs huge amounts of alkaline minerals for complete digestive processing. When you eat red meat or even plant-based proteins, your system creates an acid load. To balance this, it goes looking for alkaline minerals currently in the digestive tract. If it fails to find alkaline nourishment there, it draws on the calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium minerals stored in our bones.
This is where the good greens and essential vitamins and minerals come in. When we eat a diet that is rich in nutrients, there’s no need to draw on the stored minerals in the bones. It’s when we don’t consume enough alkaline foods with our proteins—or, worse, when we over-consume foods like sugars and grains that promote acidity in the body—we tap into our bone reserves for the needed minerals. In the short term, this isn’t an issue, but in the long run, it can have serious consequences, not just for our bone health but for our overall health.
pH and disease
Bones are the storehouse for alkalizing minerals. When the body has to offset acid overload in the digestive tract by pulling minerals from bones, we lose bone density which can lead to osteopenia and ultimately osteoporosis.
But bone loss is only one health issue that stems from failing to balance acidifying foods with alkalinizing ones.
Over time, attempting to neutralize an acidifying grain, sugar, processed foods diet—or even a diet high in protein that doesn’t also include lots of alkalinizing vegetables—will imbalance your body in a way the begins to elevate the pro-inflammatory blood acid homocysteine. Studies show that high levels of homocysteine in the blood double the risk of osteoporosis–related fractures, along with other inflammatory conditions like heart attack, stroke, fuzzy thinking, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Naturally improving your pH balance
Focus on improving your digestion, your stomach function, as well as your intestinal function.
You can’t simply load up on alkalizing foods and supplements to offset any amount of acid you consume or create. To restore pH balance, you must address and balance all sources of metabolic acidity. That includes helping your body remove toxic chemicals; detoxification takes place more slowly in an overly acidic environment.
Ideas to restore pH balance, support healthy digestion, keep blood pH levels on track, and protect your bones and kidneys, too.
- Fill your plate with fresh vegetables, particularly the dark green leafy kind. Eat the rainbow: foods that are fresh, organic, and deeply pigmented or brightly colored are the kinds that benefit you the most!
- Add fresh lemon or lime juice to foods and beverages as a highly alkalizing flavor accent.
- Choose root vegetables, too. Root veggies are an excellent sources of alkalizing mineral compounds. Roasted Root Veggies, which are also high in inulin—a type of prebiotic or food for friendly gut flora—paves the way for beneficial bacteria to thrive further down into the colon. These helpful bacteria help digest foods and release minerals and other alkaline materials.
- Have plenty of “green foods” and “green drinks.” These contain the pigment chlorophyll, the plant world’s equivalent of the hemoglobin in our blood. Chlorophyll is a strong detoxifier and immunity-building agent. Chlorophyll has lots of magnesium that is an important mineral.
- Eat plenty of protein, just eat it with plants. All proteins are acidifying as they break down. That’s not a problem as long as you eat plenty of veggies with them. Grains and starches are also acidifying; that’s where the Standard American Diet gets into trouble: burgers and fries, chicken and rice, turkey sandwiches…
- Eliminate all processed foods, particularly those that contain partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats).
- Clear the digestive slate with a the Rejuveo Cleanse. Rest your digestive tract and then restore gut health and balance by eating clean.
pH is just the tip of the iceberg, and no amount of trendy drinks or diet plans will make it more than that. That being said, paying attention to your pH is one place you can begin to make an immediate positive change to preserve your long-term health. If it feels like a good place for you to start taking better care of yourself, I encourage you to do so. From there, it’s my hope that you will continue to listen to your body and help it find balance on all fronts, including your hormones, your emotions, and your lifestyle.
Fallingborg J. Intraluminal pH of the human gastrointestinal tract. Danish medical bulletin 46(3):183-96 · July 1999
Fenton, Tanis R, and Tian Huang. Systematic Review of the Association between Dietary Acid Load, Alkaline Water and Cancer. BMJ Open 6.6 (2016): e010438. PMC. Web. 26 Sept. 2016.