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The Alkaline Diet- Does it Really Do Anything for Your Health?

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I am generally in favor of the alkaline diet, but not so much because I believe it’s a magical pH solution; rather, generally speaking, the alkaline diet tends to include more whole, plant foods such as fruits and vegetables, which means more fiber, more micronutrients, more phytochemicals, a stronger and healthier microbiome, a healthier bodyweight, less disease and many other health benefits.1  

An acidic diet tends to include more animal foods and is associated with a significantly higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.2  However, it’s great to note that switching to a healthy, whole food alkaline diet can reverse certain acid-diet-induced conditions such as high levels of uric acid (which can contribute to gout, kidney stones and other issues).3  The diet does play a small role in pH but medications and metabolic disruptions are factors as well.4  Immune stress can also be a huge factor.

What is the pH? 

The pH of the body is the balance between acidic and alkaline/basic substances.  The term “pH” stands for the potential of hydrogen.  It is a measure of the balance of hydrogen ions.  Hydrogen ions have a negative charge, so more hydrogen ions will yield a lower pH.  The pH scale goes from 1-14 with a pH of 7 being neutral.  A lower value denotes a more acidic condition and a higher value, more alkaline.  Acids and bases are a natural byproduct of various naturally occurring reactions in the body, averaging slightly toward the acid side.  The pH of the first morning urine (the first time you urinate after 5am) should be ideally between 6.4-7.0.  In this range, you are best able to absorb minerals and function optimally.

Although some areas of the body, such as the stomach, have a naturally low/acidic pH, most enzymes work best in a relatively neutral pH.  This is another reason that maintaining the pH of the body is so key to health.  

How does pH work?

The pH of the blood has a very narrow range (7.35-7.45) that must be maintained for life to persist.  If your pH shifts higher (alkalemia) or lower (acidemia) than this range, it can quickly become fatal.  Consequently, your body has several buffer systems to help maintain that narrow range at all times and to keep the pH from rising or falling too quickly.  

A buffer is made from weak acids and weak bases, which can donate/give up or take on/absorb hydrogen ions as is needed in the body.

Warning… The next section is nerding-out a bit on the biochemistry.;) 

The buffer systems include:

  1. Carbonic acid/Bicarbonate buffer system- The lungs and respiration/breathing are part of this system.   Carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood is converted to bicarbonate, until it is exhaled as waste in the form of CO2.  Carbonic acid, formed from water and CO2, is the weak acid, with bicarbonate being its conjugate base.  They function in an equilibrium reaction.  Having either a strong acid or base present will determine the reaction.  This is the most abundantly used buffer system.
  2. Phosphate buffer system-  The phosphate buffer system works in the cytosol of cells in a similar way to the carbonic acid/bicarbonate buffer system.  If the pH begins to drop, a hydrogen is donated to form dihydrogen phosphate.  If the pH starts to go up (become more alkaline), then mono-hydrogen phosphate forms, bringing the pH back down.
  3. Protein buffer system- In a similar manner as the other two buffer systems, if the pH starts to decrease (meaning an increase in hydrogen ions), the hydrogen ions will bond with the nitrogen/amine groups (positively charged) of the proteins.  Of course, the opposite is true as well.  If the pH starts to increase (a lack of hydrogen ions), the carboxyl groups (negatively charged) break apart and donate a hydrogen ion to decrease the pH.

Okay, now that that’s over…

Can you change blood pH with diet?

There are a couple of complicating factors when exploring the concept of a health-promoting diet and pH.  Although an alkaline diet tends to overall be a healthier diet in general, the ability of the body to maintain a healthy pH depends on other factors as well, such as the condition of the kidneys (which tend to become less efficient with age— although it doesn’t have to be this way!).5  Various immune stressors such as viral infections can also impact the pH.6

Clinical Application:

In a culture that takes most of its health cues from social media and marketing companies rather than science and research, there is an obsession about alkalinity.  Many people believe that if you eat a perfectly alkaline diet or drink enough alkaline water, then you will be bullet-proof against disease.  The truth is that you need a balanced pH (which is just slightly alkaline in the blood and slightly acidic in the first morning urine).  Being overly alkaline, a condition known as alkalosis, is just as dangerous as being overly acidic (and in fact has an extremely high rate of mortality).7  

It’s also significant to note the blood pH cannot be compared to the urine pH.  For people wanting to monitor at home, the urine pH is of course less expensive and easier to track with pH test paper.  However, one must keep in mind that the urine pH changes throughout the day.  Unlike blood pH, which is slightly alkaline, normal urine pH is slightly acidic (6.4-7).  If you want to know your urine pH, the best time to track is first thing in the morning (the first time you urinate after 5am).

To say that an alkaline diet is sufficient to promote ideal pH is an oversimplification at best.  As much as I hate to make an argument for an animal-based, low quality diet, if diet alone were the main factor in maintaining pH, then most Americans would die as toddlers.  Again, because of the buffer systems in the body and the drive of the body to maintain homeostasis, the diet plays an important role but isn’t the main factor in the pH.  

An alkaline diet does likely give the body less acid to contend with, but not significantly so.8  Whole plant foods, like animal-based foods, have many acidic components…  The differentiator with plant foods is that they also contain more alkaline properties in addition to the acidic ones.8  An alkaline diet tends to be more rich in whole plant foods so it is a more health-promoting diet and thus is still the best way to go for ideal health.

Are you confused about the best way to eat?  We’d love to help.  Personalized nutrition is a powerful tool that we use to help each individual person we see.  Feel free to call the clinic to schedule: 269-204-6525.

Resource List:

1. Schwalfenberg GK. The alkaline diet: Is there evidence that an alkaline pH diet benefits health? J Environ Public Health. 2012. doi:10.1155/2012/727630

2. Fagherazzi G, Vilier A, Bonnet F, et al. Dietary acid load and risk of type 2 diabetes: The E3N-EPIC cohort study. Diabetologia. 2014. doi:10.1007/s00125-013-3100-0

3. Kanbara A, Miura Y, Hyogo H, Chayama K, Seyama I. Effect of urine pH changed by dietary intervention on uric acid clearance mechanism of pH-dependent excretion of urinary uric acid. Nutr J. 2012. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-11-39

4. Pizzorno J. Acidosis: An old idea validated by new research. Integr Med. 2015.

5. Frassetto LA, Curtis Morris R, Sebastian A. Effect of age on blood acid-base composition in adult humans: Role of age-related renal functional decline. Am J Physiol. 1996. doi:10.1152/ajprenal.1996.271.6.f1114

6. Liu H, Maruyama H, Masuda T, Honda A, Arai F. The influence of virus infection on the extracellular pH of the host cell detected on cell membrane. Front Microbiol. 2016. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2016.01127

7. Galla JH. Metabolic alkalosis. J Am Soc Nephrol. 2000.

8. Frassetto L, Banerjee T, Powe N, Sebastian A. Acid balance, dietary acid load, and bone effects-a controversial subject. Nutrients. 2018. doi:10.3390/nu10040517

Nothing said or implied in this post is intended to treat, cure, diagnose or prevent any disease.  It does not take the place of a health care practitioner.  It is for educational purposes only.