You feel tired, bloated, achy and generally lousy but can’t figure out why. One possible explanation: There may be an imbalance between acid and alkali within your body. Trust us—this is one chemistry class you should not snooze through.
Keeping your body chemistry in balance is a critical part of staying healthy, happy and fit. But before the terms “acidity” and “alkalinity” make your eyes glaze over with thoughts of high-school chem lab, think of it this way: Just as acid rain damages the external environment, too much acid in the body damages your internal ecosystem. In fact, acidosis, or over-acidity within the body, is an underlying cause of many disorders; every function of the body—that’s right, every function—depends on maintaining a precise balance between acid and alkaline, or what’s known as pH.
Fortunately, you don’t need a chemistry degree to preserve a proper pH. What you do need is a little information on how your body tries to avoid over-acidity and why the way you live—and eat—can throw the whole system out of whack.
First, the basics: pH (potential of Hydrogen) is simply the measure of the acidity or alkalinity of a solution. Solutions or fluids with a pH less than 7.00 are considered acidic, while those with a pH greater than 7.00 are deemed basic or alkaline.
A healthy body’s internal fluids are slightly alkaline and lucky for us, the body works really hard to keep it that way—it has to. Blood pH, for example, must be kept between 7.35 and 7.45 in order to carry oxygen to cells. If pH dips just a little below or above this level, the whole system shuts down, resulting in death. The body’s ability to maintain a slightly alkaline pH is also essential for everything from immunity, digestion and cardiovascular function to enzyme reactions, metabolic processes and energy production.
The body regulates its pH through a complex network that teams up to preserve and protect balance. “The system includes the alkaline minerals contained both inside and outside the cells as well as the mineral reserves stored within our bones,” says nutrition authority Dr. Susan Lark in The Chemistry of Success (Bay Books). “We also have three buffer systems in the blood that help to keep its pH constant.” In addition, the lungs take in alkaline oxygen, and let out acidic carbon dioxide, and the kidneys eliminate excessive amounts of acid or alkaline substances in the urine. But while your body works overtime to keep your pH in check, your lifestyle can throw off this critical balance.
Upsetting the Balance
Today’s world supplies a slew of conditions that can make your body too acidic. In addition to poor diet (more on that later), things like emotional stress, long airplane flights, medication and infectious disease all promote acid production. In fact, Lark says that physical and mental stress of any kind reduces oxygenation and blood flow to tissues, which in turn increases acidity.
When you’re young it is relatively easy for the body to fight these outside stresses and stay balanced. But as you move into your 40s and 50s, your internal buffering system generally declines in efficiency. According to Lark, only 6% to 8% of the population produces naturally high alkaline levels well into old age. These lucky individuals have excellent digestive function and lung capacity, and are more likely to be energized and healthy as the years tick by. Unfortunately for the rest of us, chronic acidity can lead to a wide range of health problems.
An acidic pH decreases the immune system’s ability to kill bacteria and viruses, which increases the frequency of such ailments as colds and flus. Over-acidity can trigger the symptoms, as well as extend the suffering, associated with allergies. Other common symptoms of acid-base imbalance include heartburn, bloating and feeling full after eating small amounts of food. Too much acidity can leave you feeling stiff and achy as well as continually tired or lethargic. Poor acid/base balance also makes it difficult to lose weight.
Chronic low-grade acidosis is a hidden cause of osteoporosis. The more acidic you are, the more your body will try to compensate by releasing buffering minerals into the bloodstream, like calcium taken from the skeleton. That’s because “bones contain one of our major reserves of alkaline minerals,” Lark says. “Ninety-nine percent of the calcium in our bodies is in the bones.” If the pH imbalance lasts long enough, a depletion of bone mass occurs, resulting in bones that are fragile and prone to breakage.
More bad news: when your body accumulates an excessive amount of acid you’re also at risk for the long list of degenerative diseases including arthritis, cancer, hypertension, heart disease, memory loss and diabetes, all of which share the common link of acidosis. “A healthy cell contains large amounts of alkaline substances,” Lark explains. “However, the wear and tear of daily life and the aging process itself gradually cause our cells to lose their healthy alkalinity and become more acid over time, thereby making us more prone to disease.”
The longer you wait to balance pH, the longer you remain at risk for acid-related illnesses. The first step is to determine your current acid/base balance with simple litmus strips available in most pharmacies; to get a complete picture of your body’s pH you’ll need to test your urine or salivary pH over the course of a few days. Then you must learn how to avoid one of the biggest reasons for acid overload—a destructive diet.
What you put in your body has a huge impact on your pH. Regrettably, what many of us eat doesn’t help matters. A typical Western diet is loaded with such acid-formers as refined flour and sugar, corn sweeteners, caffeine, soft drinks, and processed and fried foods. American diets are also too high in acid-producing animal products like meat and dairy, and too low in alkaline-producing foods like fresh vegetables.
Cutting down on unhealthy fats and processed carbohydrates, and increasing consumption of vegetables (especially dark greens), fruits, whole grains, seafood and good-for-you fats (think olive and canola oil) can significantly improve your pH balance. This Mediterranean-style diet is considered one of the healthiest on the planet. Not only is it backed by a decade’s worth of medical research that shows it lowers the incidence for such life-threatening diseases such as cancer, hypertension, heart disease and diabetes (all of which are associated with chronic acidosis), it’s also loaded with healthy phytochemicals (the naturally occurring compounds in plant foods) that defend cells against harmful free radicals.
Foods are categorized as acidifying or alkalizing depending on the effect they have on the body. Keep in mind that not all acid-producing foods are “bad”; actually there are many healthy acid-forming foods you should include as part of a balanced diet. The real problem is that most Americans eat considerably more acid-forming foods than alkalizing foods, and this disparity leads to an unbalanced pH. “A meal should never consist solely of acidifying foods but should always contain alkaline foods,” says Dr. Christopher Vasey, a naturopathic physician who specializes in detoxification and author of The Acid-Alkaline Diet for Optimum Health (Healing Arts Press). “The amount of alkalizing foods should be greater proportionally than the amount of acidifying foods at any one meal.” The following modifications offer you the biggest pH return on your diet-changing investment:
Go Green—All veggies are chock-full of beneficial antioxidants and phytochemicals that bolster the immune system and reduce damage to cells, but the alkalizing leafy green ones are particularly helpful in balancing your pH. So go ahead and eat your greens (Mom will be so proud!) Some experts also suggest boosting your diet with green foods (think spirulina, chlorella and the juice of wheat grass, barley and other sprouted greens); these contain the pigment chlorophyll, a strong detoxifier and immunity-builder that helps to keep your pH in check. (Green foods are available in supplement form.)
Focus on Whole—Keep in mind you can’t just add lots of alkaline foods to offset any amount of acid you consume or create. You need to also cut some of the acid-producing foods in your diet; refined flour and sugar, hydrogenated fats (known as trans fats), sweeteners and other processed foods are a really good place to start. Instead focus on foods that are in their whole form—fresh veggies and fruit, whole grains, beans, and nuts—the way nature made them.
Manage the Meat—Concentrated amounts of protein and fat found in meat are detrimental to your pH. You don’t have to give up meat altogether, but instead use it sparingly, as a condiment instead of a main course. Think green salads topped with a few slices of filet instead of an entire grilled steak. As a general rule keep your servings of meat to about four ounces per meal (the size of a deck of cards).
Hydrate—Hydration is important for a balanced metabolism and pH, so aim for 10-plus cups a day of water-based, non-caffeinated fluids. And while you increase your H2O, you should decrease alcohol, along with soda and other sugar-based drinks.
Alleviate Allergies—Common food allergens like dairy, wheat, peanuts, corn and seafood will cause acid production in individuals who are sensitive or intolerant to these foods. Symptoms include hives, itchy skin, swollen lips or eyelids, tightness of the throat, wheezing, coughing, vomiting or diarrhea. If you suspect you have a food allergy, get it confirmed with a test and then always avoid the items that give you grief.
Are you ready to achieve a healthy inner equilibrium? Eating a pH-loving diet that helps your body maintain the correct acidic-alkaline balance will help you ward off disease, stay energized and maintain optimum well-being.