The acid-alkaline balance in the body (Pt. 1)
Cell energy is an essential aspect of heart health that is made possible by the delivery of nutrients through the circulatory system. A key part of a cell’s energy production is detoxification. Cell detoxification keeps excess acid from building up, without which the cell would have to shut down its energy machinery (1). This would not only affect the health of the cell, but it would create an overall state of acidosis in the body.
We saw in our previous blogs how acidosis can prevent the flow of lymph, allowing dangerous toxins to build up in the body. How can we keep this from happening? The answer is in an alkaline diet, which provides the minerals necessary to buffer this acid and allows the body to have the pH it needs to perform all its functions. In this blog, we will talk about the balance of acid vs. alkaline in the body, we will look at what an alkaline diet looks like and how it can improve heart health.
The health of our cells equals the health of our body
As part of their healthy metabolism, cells produce acid. In order to buffer this acid they must receive minerals. The most alkaline minerals are calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium bicarbonate, manganese, and iron (2). When enough of these nutrients are inside cells, the cell can have a healthy mitochondria to produce energy. When this is not the case, the cell begins to shut down and it is forced to go into ‘survival mode’, where it cannot make the protective molecules that are necessary to guard us from toxins (1).
Normally, the kidneys maintain our electrolyte levels (calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium). However, when we are exposed to overly acidic foods, these electrolytes are used up to combat acidity (3). The consequences of this could be devastating, because, as we know, electrolytes are essential for heart and brain function, among other things. This is where an alkaline diet comes to the rescue.
What is an alkaline diet?
An alkaline diet is one consisting of foods that contain mainly alkaline minerals. Alkaline minerals have a certain pH that our body needs to stay in a healthy balance. In this sense, the pH in our body is determined by the mineral density of the foods we eat, and because of this, we could say that pH health and mineral balance go together.
A 2012 review published in the ‘Journal of Environmental Health’ found that balancing the body’s pH through an alkaline diet can be helpful in reducing the symptoms associated with conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, vitamin D deficiency, and low bone density, among others (3).
Why is the right pH necessary for optimal health?
Our body requires a very tightly controlled blood pH level of about 7.365–7.4. This is necessary because most functions in the body can only happen at a specific pH. For example, the enzymes in the stomach need a different pH to those of the pancreas in order to be activated. Because of this, the body will go to extraordinary lengths to maintain safe pH levels. Consuming too many acidic foods can cause electrolyte imbalances, changing pH levels to a state of acidosis.
When we look at the optimal pH of the body, health then can be seen as a matter of balance between acid and alkaline cells. What does this mean? The cells of our bodies are always seeking for a healthy balance to keep us alkaline. Even a small shift toward more acid is linked to a great increase in disease and loss of cell resilience. When our bodies are in a more acidic state, they are weaker and more vulnerable to disease; our defenses and ability to repair from usual wear and tear are down. When our bodies are in a healthier, more alkaline state, they are more resilient and can resist and recover from illness more effectively (4).
The foods that we choose have a great impact on our health, they affect our acid and alkaline balance. The common ‘Standard American Diet’, high in sugar, meat, dairy, soda, coffee, tea, alcohol, nicotine, processed foods, and so on, is quite imbalanced and increases our risk of ill health, in part by contributing to an excess acid load. Burdened by this excess acid, our bodies have a harder time resisting sickness and bouncing back from stress, resulting in fatigue, illness, and infection risks. Acid makes our bodies more acidic, and less resilient. This state is known as ‘metabolic acidosis’ (4). High degrees of acidity force our bodies to rob minerals from the bones, cells, organs and tissues. This accelerates the aging process, causes gradual loss of organ functions, and degenerates tissue and bone mass. On the other hand, when we enjoy a diet rich in greens, plants, fruits, vegetables, minerals, and antioxidants, our cells become more alkaline, and more resistant to everyday stress (3).
A very acidic diet can be the cause of:
- Kidney disease
- Auto-immune disorders
- Premature aging
- Heart disease and stroke
- Weight gain, obesity and diabetes
- Bone disorders: osteopenia and osteoporosis
- Bladder, kidney stones
- Hormone imbalances
- Joint pain, aching muscles and lactic acid buildup
- Slow digestion and poor elimination
- Yeast/fungal overgrowth
What does ‘pH level’ mean?
pH is short for the ‘potential of hydrogen’. Our pH is the measure of how acid or alkaline we are (our body’s fluids and tissues). pH is measured on a scale from 0 to 14. A pH of 0 is absolutely acid, 14 is completely alkaline and 7 is neutral. Our bodies seek to maintain a slightly alkaline pH of approximately 7.35 in the blood of our veins as they bring blood back to lungs and heart to be recharged. This is considered to be the optimal pH, slightly alkaline. Also, pH levels vary throughout the body, with the stomach being the most acidic. Even very tiny alterations in the pH level of various organs can cause major problems (4).
Having a balanced (more alkaline) body pH can lead to less illness and infection, lowered cancer risk, better digestion, abundant energy, more restful and restorative sleep, reduction of yeast and parasite hospitality, increased mental alertness, and more (4).
Alkaline foods also have more electrolytes, those that our heart needs to function properly. Compared to the diet of our ancestors, the food we eat has significantly less potassium, magnesium and chloride, but significantly more sodium. The ratio of potassium to sodium in most people’s diets has changed dramatically. Potassium used to outnumber sodium by 10:1, however with the ‘Standard American Diet’ the ratio has dropped to 1:3 as people eat three times as much sodium as potassium on average. All of these changes have resulted in increased ‘metabolic acidosis’. This, in conjunction with low nutrient intake and lack of essential minerals like potassium and magnesium, has caused the pH levels of many people’s bodies to be less than optimal (3).
Benefits of an alkaline diet
An alkaline diet will provide a more balanced pH level of the fluids in the body, including blood and urine. This helps protect healthy cells and balance essential mineral levels in the following ways (3):
- Prevention of plaque formation in blood vessels
- Stopping calcium from accumulating in urine
- Prevention of kidney stones
More benefits of an alkaline diet are (4):
- Protects bone density and muscle mass
More than 40 million Americans currently suffer from bone loss, as osteoporosis or osteopenia (a major cause of hip fracture). Among Caucasian women over 65, one in two will suffer a fracture due to osteoporosis.
Scientific and medical communities now widely accept that an acidic diet plays a key role in bone loss and weakening of bones. This happens because acidosis increases the loss of minerals from bones and joints, where mineral reserves (magnesium, calcium, and a dozen others) are stored.
When cells are too acidic, calcium and magnesium are drawn from the bones. Cells that build bone are less effective, and the cells’ pH balance is affected. Chronic metabolic acidosis depletes bone and causes osteopenia (lower bone density) and eventually osteoporosis (loss of bone mass with risk of fractures).
Animal studies confirm that even small changes in pH make a big difference in bone and cell function. In one animal study, bone loss increased by 500% with a pH change of just 0.2 units. This shows how even a small change in cell pH induces big problems over time.
Fortunately, this process can be reversed, and new bone can be built, even in those with longstanding deficits. Intake of minerals through the diet has an important role in the development and maintenance of bone in the body. Research shows that the more alkalizing fruits and vegetables someone eats, the better protection that person might have from this decreased bone strength and muscle wasting as they age. An alkaline diet can help balance ratios of minerals that are important for building bones and maintaining lean muscle mass, including calcium, magnesium and phosphate. Alkaline diets also help improve production of growth hormones and vitamin D absorption, which further protects bones in addition to mitigating many other chronic diseases.
- Lowers risk for hypertension and stroke
By decreasing inflammation and causing an increase in growth hormone production, alkaline foods have been shown to improve cardiovascular health and offer protection against high cholesterol, hypertension, kidney stones, stroke and memory loss.
- Lowers chronic pain and inflammation
Studies have found a connection between an alkaline diet and reduced levels of chronic pain. Chronic acidosis has been found to contribute to chronic back pain, headaches, muscle spasms, menstrual symptoms, inflammation and joint pain.
- Boosts vitamin absorption and prevents magnesium deficiency
An increase in magnesium is required for the function of hundreds of enzyme systems and bodily processes. Many people are deficient in magnesium and as a result experience heart complications, muscle pains, headaches, sleep troubles and anxiety. Available magnesium is also required to activate vitamin D, which is important for overall immune and endocrine functioning.
- Helps improve immune function and cancer protection
Cells need minerals to properly dispose of waste and oxygenate the body. Minerals are also needed for vitamins to be absorbed. A high mineral-vitamin diet prevents the accumulation of toxins and pathogens in the body that would weaken the immune system.
- Can help with healthy weight
Consuming an alkaline diet gives the body a chance to achieve normal leptin levels, which decrease hunger.
- Diabetes Protection
Studies show that even the slightest degree of metabolic acidosis produces insulin resistance and systemic hypertension. A strongly acidic diet, combined with excess body weight, lack of physical exercise, and aging, may result in metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. These conditions, in turn, may lead to impaired cardiovascular health. In contrast, increased intake of alkalizing foods can help reverse these.
An organ that is tightly related to diabetes is the pancreas. This important organ has three main functions (5):
- Making insulin
- Making digestive enzymes
- Making bicarbonate
The pancreas is a great example of the acid-alkaline balance needed in the body. It produces bicarbonate (alkaline) to neutralize acids coming from the stomach to provide the right pH for the pancreatic enzymes to be activated. The pancreas also provides digestive juices, which contain pancreatic enzymes in an alkaline solution to provide the right conditions for digestion to be completed in the small intestines.
Without enough bicarbonate, the pancreatic enzymes produced by the pancreas cannot be activated which allows undigested proteins to stay in our digestive system and finally penetrate the blood stream, where they start allergic reactions.
Acid producing diets destroy the pancreas because as the levels of acidity rise in the body, the pancreas has to work harder to maintain bicarbonates. Without sufficient bicarbonates, the pancreas is slowly destroyed, insulin becomes a problem and diabetes is the end result. Because the pancreas is the organ that controls the body’s pH, by making bicarbonate ions, when the pancreas starts failing, the whole body starts getting more acid. This bicarbonate is needed as a buffer to maintain the normal levels of acidity (pH) in blood and other fluids in the body. Ironically, the pancreas is also is one of the first organs affected when general pH shifts to the acidic.
Once there is an inhibition of pancreatic function and pancreatic bicarbonate flow, there naturally follows a chain reaction of inflammatory reactions throughout the body. The reactions would include even the brain as acidic conditions begin to generally prevail. Decreasing bicarbonate flow would boomerang hardest right back on the pancreas, which itself needs proper alkaline conditions to provide the full amount of bicarbonate necessary for the body.
- Liver protection
Not only is the pancreas affected by a highly acidic pH level, the liver is also greatly affected. In the same manner, because of the important role played by the liver in removing acid waste from the body, liver function is also particularly at risk when acids accumulate. When acidity prevents the liver and pancreas from regulating blood sugar, the risk of diabetes and thus cancer increases. On the contrary, when the body is bicarbonate sufficient it is more capable of resisting the toxicity of chemical insults.
- Kidney Protection
An alkaline diet contributes to the health and protection of our kidneys, another most vital organ in our body. Our kidneys remove wastes, help control blood pressure, and help keep bones healthy. An alkaline diet contributes to lowered risk of kidney disorders, such as kidney stones, kidney disease, and kidney failure.