The Power of Alkalinity
The abbreviation pH stands for power of hydrogen. It is a measure of the hydrogen ion concentration in a solution. An acid is a chemical that releases hydrogen into a solution. An alkali is a chemical that removes hydrogen from a solution. The acidity or alkalinity is critical to body function because many of your essential chemical reactions work properly only within a narrow range.
As shown below, a solution with a pH of 7.0 is neutral. Above 7.0 is alkaline; below 7.0 is acid. Your blood is slightly alkaline at 7.35 – 7.45, a balance your body tries to maintain at all times. If blood becomes too acid, as is the usual case when eating modern food, it will draw calcium and other acid-buffering minerals from your bones in order to raise the pH back to normal.1
Various parts of the body have different acid/alkaline balances depending on what you eat and what you do. Skeletal muscle pH varies from 6.0 – 7.2, depending on the exercise you do. Exercise makes muscle more acid. At rest, skeletal muscle is neutral at 7.0. The healthy heart, brain and liver are all slightly alkaline between pH 7.0 – 7.2.
Your saliva varies between 6.0 – 7.4, depending on the ambient level of acidity of the body overall, and on what you put in your mouth. Urine can get very acidic, ranging in pH from 4.5 – 8.0. Your urinary tract will not be comfortable at a pH of 4.5 – 6.0. And, if your saliva gets down to an acidity level of 4.5 pH, it will gradually burn the enamel off your teeth.
Almost all foods release either acid or alkaline ash (bicarbonate base) into your gut and bloodstream. Because of the large amount of plant material in their diets,, the gut, blood and organs of our ancient ancestors were almost always alkaline, probably between pH 7.0 – 7.5, except when they gorged on meat after a successful hunt. In contrast, the average American and Canadian diet is acidic, releasing about 50 milli-equivalents of acid each day.2
That’s not very acidic but it is very damaging. The average citizen is constantly in a state of acidosis of about pH 6.5. That is why antacids in America make $7 billion every year, and rising. If we simply made our diets more alkaline, almost all that self-induced discomfort, and the gastrointestinal disease it turns into, would disappear.
Acidity Causes Osteoporosis
In my book Nutrition For Champions (2007) I examine how excess salt and low levels of potassium in the average diet cause chronic acidosis. Salt (sodium chloride) is acidic because of the chloride ion. The major problem with acidosis in the blood is bone loss. Even low-grade acidosis causes the body to pull calcium from your bones, and is a major risk factor for osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a major epidemic in the US and accelerating out of sight, and it is never prevented simply by taking extra calcium.3
Bone is extremely sensitive to acidity. In their research on bone health, experts Russell Jaffe and Susan Brown provide excellent, simple explanations of how we destroy our skeleton. All cola drinks, for example, vary between pH 2.4 – 3.2. That’s acid! To buffer it, and return the pH of the system to normal after drinking a can of cola, your body needs to use about 4000 mg of calcium and a lot of water.3 Daily calcium intake can’t cut it, so the balance, well, a lot of it, because potassium and other nutrients also buffer acid, has to come from your bones. Over a decade, daily cola drinks will eat up a lot of bone.
Alkalinity Builds Bone
Bringing your body back to the slightly alkaline state it was designed for, prevents calcium loss from bone. In a representative study, Anthony Sebastian and colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, examined the effect of potassium supplementation. They selected a group of post-menopausal women who showed the typical American condition of low-level chronic acidosis in their blood, and supplemented them with 60-120mmol per day of potassium bicarbonate (pH, 8.2) an alkaline chemical. The supplement neutralized the excess acid in the subjects’ blood almost overnight. During the next two weeks of supplementation, their urinary loss of calcium declined dramatically, and measures of bone loss reversed to show bone formation. Their acid excretion declined by 80%.4
Seems too easy doesn’t it, with osteoporosis rampant in America. It is that easy, if you respect your miraculous genetic design and eat accordingly. I have to admit though, that potassium bicarbonate, (KHC03), takes particular advantage of the way we function, advantage that puts it ahead of a plate of green veggies. As potassium bicarbonate circulates in the bloodstream the lungs do the job they are designed for and remove the carbon dioxide (CO2). The potassium bicarbonate then becomes dilute potassium hydroxide, (KOH), one of the most caustic alkaline substances around, with a pH of 13.0. In chemistry, its common name is potash lye, a very corrosive alkali used in making bleach and alkaline batteries. So don’t play with this supplement on your own. Even in the stomach it can upset you badly. Your physician knows the safe medical forms and the way to take them.
Test Your pH
You can get a reasonable estimate of your own acid/alkaline balance, and quickly ascertain if a change in diet is needed, or if a change you make is working. Obtain pHydrion strips from your local pharmacy. Measure your first urine in the morning. It should range between 6.2 – 7.0 pH. If it is consistently below 6.2, you are probably too acidic. Your buffering and elimination system cannot cope with the acid in your food.
Measure your fasting saliva in the morning also. It should range between 6.5 – 7.5 pH. If it is consistently below 6.5, your body is probably producing too much acid, or cannot eliminate the acid efficiently. Either way, you need to change your food.
Our ancient diet was alkaline, producing a net input of bicarbonate of about 85 milli-equivalents per day. We lost this healthy state because of development of multiple high-acid foods. Cereal grains are big villains: wheat, rice, corn, rye, spelt, millet, and barley are all acid-producing. The only cereals that are nearly neutral are old-fashioned, uncut oatmeal and wild rice.5
Made from grains, sugar and fat, almost all baked goods, jams, jellies, and puddings are acid-producing. So are dairy products, especially cows’ milk, cottage cheese, processed cheese and ice cream. All fish, shellfish and meats are acid-producing, too, but we need some of those for other reasons. Some nuts and seeds are acid; others are alkaline. Alkaline-producing nuts are almonds and chestnuts.5
As you might guess from our evolution, all leafy green vegetables are highly alkaline. Most other vegetables are, too. So are citrus fruits. Even though a lemon or lime may taste acidic, it produces a net input of bicarbonate inside you. Only the odd fruit is acidic, such as pomegranates and some tomatoes. The ideal diet is about 75% alkaline –producing, 25% acid –producing. Most legumes, however, are acidic. Some scientists contend that legumes were only minor items in the pre-agricultural diet.5 Having tried a number of varieties of wild beans I tend to agree; they taste worse than the senna tea my mother used to make us drink for constipation.
In all of us, eating an alkaline diet not only saves our bones. It also reduces the acid excretion load on our kidneys, so that they function better and last a lot longer. And it saves us from a whole spectrum of related illnesses, not the least of which is muscle loss, which occurs when the ambient pH level of the blood is acid. Muscle loss occurs both in acidic young athletes, as they add to the background acidity with a whole lot of acid produced by training. It also occurs slowly but inexorably in all acidic adults as they age.6 Lose your muscle and you lose the source of your glutamine that supports the immune system. Then you become subject to every wandering microbe seeking an easy lunch.
You can get a list of acid/alakaline foods off the internet. 1. Buschinsky DA. Metabolic alkalosis decreases bone calcium efflux by suppressing osteoclasts and stimulating osteoblasts. Am J Physiol, 1996; 271:F216-F222.
2. Sebastian A, et al. Estimations of the net acid load of the diet of ancestral pre-agricultural Homo sapiens and their hominid ancestors. Am Soci Clin Nitr, 2002; 76:1308-1316.
3. Brown SE, and Jaffe R. Acid-alkaline balance and its effect on bone health. J Integ Med, 2000; 2:1-8.
4. Sebastian A, et al. Improved mineral balances and skeletal metabolism in post menopausal women treated with potassium bicarbonate. New Engl J Med, 1994; 330:1776-1781.
5. I am indebted to Dr. Russell Jaffe, Senior Fellow of the Health Studies Collegium for information on acid-producing and alkaline-producing foods. It is the best I have read.
6. Alpern RJ, and Sakhaee S. The clinical spectrum of metabolic acidosis: homeostatic mechanisms produce significant morbidity. Am J Kidney Dis, 1997; 29:291-302.