Popping the Acid/Alkaline Diet Bubble

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Hello, Health Conscious Friends:

Today I would like to dive into an important, but widely misunderstood topic: pH balance in the body, especially in context of the food that we eat.

A few days ago, I got an email advertisement letting me know that I have too much acid in the body and that all I needed were a few drops of an alkaline mineral solution to cure most of my health problems. I'm sure you've seen similar come-ons, perhaps substituting an herbal product or even a food or group of foods as the remedy to this reputed widespread "problem." This ad came from someone who should know better, an MD!

In my practice for those I test for various metabolic imbalances and then come up having a pH (acid/alkaline) imbalance about half are too acidic and the other half are too alkaline. For those who are too alkaline taking alkaline water may be the wrong thing to do. For most people, there are other more critical imbalances than pH and most of those imbalances influence the pH to become out of range. It is not simply a pH problem.

I started down the road of nutritional science about 13 years ago, by attending Dr. Harold Kristal's Metabolic Typing seminars. He introduced me to researchers like Wolcott, Rivici, Watson, Kelly, Schenker and others who held that each of us has biochemical individuality and that individuality leads to not only differences in the types of metabolic imbalances we have, but also the dietary needs we have that can help maintain our healthy state of homeostasis. Others, the most well known on the web, Dr. Mercola, have picked up this call to metabolic individuality by stressing different types of diet for different metabolic types. It is the reason why some people do well on the Atkins diet, or any diet, and others don't.

Within Dr. Kristal's training was the foundational research of several people that established that eating 4 ounces of food then actually looking at arterial blood pH showed specific pH changes. The biggest surprise from that research is that meat actually alkalizes the blood for the typical oxidative metabolizing individual. Dr. Kristal developed a protocol of testing that could deduce the relative blood pH (he found that the optimal arterial blood pH is 7.46, so "acid" is less than that, even if above 7.0 which by chemistry terminology is "alkaline") based on watching how the tested people would metabolize a glucose sugar solution. Based on the outcome of that testing regimen, one could predict the metabolic type and whether the individual had any imbalances that needed correcting. One would correct the imbalance by diet and selected supplements.

It has been my experience that there are indeed individual differences but most people fall within a "balanced or mixed" metabolic type, but certainly those people on the extremes can benefit by looking at these metabolic typing diets. In my own case, I tend toward a need for more protein and fats to create a metabolic balance and by observing such a diet. I actually eliminated my hay fever allergies in about 2 weeks after I took this course and made the necessary changes to my diet. In my case I was in fact, too acid.

When we look at metabolic imbalances there are several:

  • pH (the degree of acidity or alkalinity) balance;
  • Electrolyte balance (the concentration and mix of various mineral salts);
  • Anaerobic/Dysaerobic balance (production of energy by oxidation and relation to lipid metabolism, which influences cell membrane permeability );
  • Glucogenic/Ketogenic balance (an expression of the quantity of energy production from the oxidative energy metabolism);
  • Sympathetic/Parasympathetic balance (does our autonomic nervous system have a tendency toward one or the other?)

As you can see pH (i.e. acidity/alkalinity) is only one possible general metabolic imbalance that can effect one's health.

Now, when we say someone is too acid or too alkaline, what does that mean? Dr. Kristal limited his discussion of pH to arterial blood pH and most of the researchers he referenced did so, too. Notice he was not talking about urine or saliva pH which is what most nutritionists measure when deciding if one is too acid (or too alkaline). Dr. Schenker points out in his Nutri-Spec training manual, that such measurements do not reflect the acid or alkalinity of the entire body. In fact it is quite possible to be too alkaline or too acid and have the saliva or urine be the exact opposite, even the saliva may be opposite to the urine of the same person. I see this condition regularly in my testing.

The main fact to remember is that someone is acid or alkaline based primarily on two main systems: renal function and respiratory function. As Dr. Schenker states, "You could stuff your face with meat around the clock for days and still not produce the level of acidosis resulting from 15 minutes of hard running."

What this means is that as you become more alkaline or acid your retention or blowing off of your CO2 in your blood will help control your pH. This manifests as a change in respiratory rate or breath holding times. Likewise, the kidneys can control the retention or excretion of acid in the urine. Bottom line is that your urinary or saliva pH do not indicate acidosis or alkalosis, only respiratory rate and the breath hold times do that. In blood work, the blood Carbon Dioxide level can be an indication of acidosis or alkalosis, too.

So, how does food fit into this picture of pH?

The answer is "not much" or at least when you just consider a particular food. Dr. Kristal used to tell us that we use food to "tweak" the metabolic state. In other words, only dramatic, big changes in diet cause changes in pH and even then only for people who have a more extreme metabolic type and are in fact out of balance.

Let's start by dispensing with the faulty myth that a particular food is acid or alkaline. Those ideas come from historically looking at the pH of the ash content of food and an overly simplistic view of how we digest and metabolize food. For example, food that is acid is not simply "burnt" in the stomach, but rather it is methodically worked on at a relatively low temperature with a cascade of enzymatically controlled biochemical reactions which gradually break down the food so the body can assimilate the nutrients and then excrete what it does not need.

It is this process of metabolism, defined as digestion, that controls whether the results of eating a meal creates acid or alkaline, and as outline above, is only a small amount of the acid/alkaline pH creation process in the body. In other words, it is the digestion of the food which determines whether a food metabolizes to produce a predominately acid or alkaline effect on the body's pH. And we have already stated that each person has individual metabolic processes. That means that food can create different degrees of acidity or alkalinity and may even produce a completely opposite pH outcome from one person to another depending on their metabolic individuality.

Several early diet researchers showed that there are two broad types of metabolic individuals: oxidative regulators (so called "Fast" or "Slow") and autonomic regulators (parasympathetic or sympathetic). Each group will metabolize food, producing exactly opposite blood pH changes then the other metabolic type for the same food. By that I mean that an oxidative type could eat meat and change his/her blood pH toward alkaline, but the autonomic type would make the blood pH acid. So, you can see talking about food as either being alkaline or acid in some absolute sense, well does not make sense, nor is it supported by the research.

We all would like to make diet selection an easy process, and what easier method than simply looking at the pH of the food, but alas, it is really not that simple. It has been my experience that the other metabolic imbalances listed above are actually more important as causative factors in health issues than pH and that pH itself is typically influenced by those imbalances to a greater degree than simply looking at the pH of the food. By that statement, I mean that for instance a dysaerobic/anaerobic imbalance will create an abnormal pH shift along with other detrimental effects more than simply changing foods based on the expected pH changes that can occur in the blood.

So, I hate to pop the acid/alkaline diet bubble, but I need to say, too, that the typical "alkaline" diet, which I hope by now you know is not in fact alkaline, is actually a pretty good diet nonetheless, but not because it is "alkaline" nor even that it makes the body more alkaline, which it may not, depending on the individual's metabolic uniqueness. What you want to take away from this is that you should not necessarily increase your alkaline intake by taking alkaline water, for example, to correct what you may think is an acid condition without first getting tested. You may be too alkaline already. We still need an easy way to look at our diet and I hope to share with you some basic tenets of good diet that others in whom I trust have taught me.

In good health,

Chuck Belanger, L.Ac.