Most of us never consider the acid/alkaline balance of our blood, but a proper pH is a crucial aspect to overall health. Many doctors stress the importance of reducing acidity and increasing alkalinity with an alkaline diet because a balanced pH helps protect us from the inside out. Disease and disorder, they say, cannot take root in a body whose pH is in balance.
What is the meaning of “pH balance”? Do you know if your pH levels are off? Well, pH balance refers to a proper balance in the body between acidity and alkalinity. Your body does a great job of keeping its pH balanced in most cases, but by eating an alkaline diet may help prevent unhealthy microbes and organisms from flourishing, tissues and organs from becoming damaged, minerals from being depleted, and your immune system from being compromised. Why? You’ll have to read on to find out!
A 2012 review published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health states:
It is generally accepted that agricultural humans today have a diet poor in magnesium and potassium as well as fiber, and rich in saturated fat, simple sugars, sodium, and chloride as compared to the preagricultural period. This results in a diet that may induce metabolic acidosis which is mismatched to our genetically determined nutritional requirements. (1)
The most effective way to support a balanced pH is to eat lot of nutrient-dense, alkalizing plant foods and to limit your intake of processed foods. Because so many different factors — gut health, stress, sleep, medications and medical history — also affect how hard your body has to work to maintain its appropriate pH level, other lifestyle habits can also be helpful for restoring balance.
What Is pH Balance?
What we call “pH” is short for the “potential of hydrogen,” or the measure of the hydrogen ion concentration of a solution. (2) pH is also a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of our body’s fluids and tissues. It is measured on a pH scale that ranges from 0 to 14. The more acidic a solution is, the lower its pH value. The more alkaline it is, the higher the pH number is. The acidity or alkalinity of different solutions, including human blood but also many others found outside the body (such as the ocean), are indicated on the pH scale.
What should the body’s pH level be ideally? A pH of 7 is considered neutral and “neutral” means it is equally acidic as alkaline. Blood (serum) pH, as well as the pH in the majority of bodily tissues, should stay around 7.365, while the stomach is at a pH of around 2 in order to break down foods properly. Saliva and urine are typically on the acidic side, between 6.4-6.8 in a healthy individual.
- Protection from heart disease
- Prevention of calcium accumulating in urine
- Prevention of kidney stones, kidney disease and damage
- Reduced inflammation
- Lowered diabetes risk
- Maintaining stronger bones/better bone mineral density
- Reductions in muscle wasting or spasms
- Better protection against vitamin D deficiency and related consequences
- Improvement in lower back pain
What causes pH imbalance?
The Merck Manual’s definition of acidosis is “An overproduction of acid in the blood or an excessive loss of bicarbonate from the blood (metabolic acidosis), or a buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood that results from poor lung function or depressed breathing (respiratory acidosis).” (8)
What can cause your pH level to shift towards a more acidic state, thereby causing imbalance?
In truth, your body almost always does an excellent job at keeping your pH levels balanced. Unfortunately, you hold the key in determining how hard your body must work to achieve this.
An increase in acid overwhelms the body’s acid-base control systems, causing the blood to tend toward acidity. Normally, the kidneys maintain proper balance of pH and electrolyte levels, including calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium. But when we are exposed to acidic substances, these electrolytes are used to combat acidity.
The kidneys start to excrete more minerals out of the body via the urine. High degrees of acidity from diet or medical conditions force our bodies to rob minerals from our bones, cells, organs and tissues. Cells end up lacking enough minerals to properly dispose of waste or oxygenate the body completely. Vitamin absorption is then compromised by mineral loss. Toxins and pathogens can start to accumulate in the body, and this can suppress the immune system.
Basically, you force your body to work in overtime to keep your blood at a neutral pH while destroying the nutrient levels your body innately needs to accomplish the task. These disruptions include ruining the potassium:sodium ratio (until our diets changed so drastically, it used to be 10:1, while it’s now 1:3); reduction in magnesium levels; a dangerously low level of fiber; and an early loss of function in the kidneys, particularly during aging. (7)
You may not technically have a pH imbalance, but your body isn’t going to have the stamina you might like to lead you into gracefully (and healthfully) aging if you force it to always stay in overdrive.
Types of Acidosis
There are five basic types of what doctors refer to as “metabolic acidosis,” meaning that the body has a poor pH balance or is working too hard to maintain proper pH.
- Diabetic ketoacidosis — Sometimes wrongly confused with the state of ketosis, diabetic ketoacidosis happens when a diabetic doesn’t handle their condition well and the liver produces dangerously high amounts of ketone bodies. This typically happens when blood sugar is upwards of 240 mg/dL.
- Hyperchloremic acidosis — Vomiting and diarrhea can cause a temporary state of acidosis called hyperchloremic acidosis, which means your body has lost the base of sodium bicarbonate it uses to neutralize your blood.
- Lactic acidosis — Too much lactic acid can result in acidosis. According to Healthline, “Causes can include chronic alcohol use, heart failure, cancer, seizures, liver failure, prolonged lack of oxygen and low blood sugar. Even prolonged exercise can lead to lactic acid buildup.”
- Renal tubular acidosis — If your kidneys can no longer excrete acids to your urine to get rid of them, the blood can become acidic.
- Dietary acidosis — Only recognized as a legitimate form of acidosis in recent years, dietary acidosis (or “diet-induced acidosis”) is the state of eating a highly acidic diet that puts undue stress on the body, resulting in elevated disease risk and poorer overall function. A 2010 review of the topic says that diet-induced acidosis “has a significant, clinical, long-term pathophysiological effect that should be recognized.” (9)
Factors that Contribute to Acidity
- Alcohol and drug use (including acetazolamide, opioids, sedatives and aspirin)
- Antibiotic overuse
- Kidney disease or kidney malfunction
- Poor digestion and gut health
- Eating lots of processed and refined foods that are high in sodium, added sugar, refined grains, preservatives, etc. (10)
- Low intake of potassium, calcium and other minerals (11)
- High consumption of artificial sweeteners, food coloring and preservatives
- Pesticides and herbicides that can remain on non-organic foods
- Chronic stress
- Sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea
- Declining nutrient levels in foods due to industrial farming and poor quality topsoil
- Low levels of fiber in the diet
- Lack of exercise/sedentary lifestyle
- Excess animal meats in the diet (from non-grass fed sources)
- Excess hormones from processed foods, health and beauty products, and plastics
- Exposure to chemicals and radiation from household cleansers, building materials, computers, cell phones and microwaves
- Poor chewing and eating habits
- Lung diseases or damage, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, severe pneumonia, pulmonary edema and asthma
How do you help your body achieve a neutral pH level?
How to Support Proper pH balance
1. Reduce Intake of Acidic Foods
If you currently eat a “Standard American Diet,” you’ll likely need to give certain things up in order to eat a diet that’s lower in acidic foods. Acidic foods to limit or eliminate from your diet include:
- Processed meats such as deli meats, cold cuts, hot dogs, salami and cured meats, etc.
- Foods high in sodium
- Added sugar
- Processed cereal grains, such as corn, wheat, barley, sorghum, millet, rye, triticale and fonio
- Conventional meats (beef, chicken and pork)
- Fried foods
- Milk and dairy products
- Refined grains including white rice, white bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, etc.
There are also some otherwise healthy foods that contribute to acidity, but still don’t need to be completed avoided. These foods can still contribute many nutrients to your diet, so continue to eat them in moderation as part of an overall balanced diet.
- Most high-protein foods, such as meat and eggs (go for free-range and/or grass-fed options)
- Lentils and other legumes
- Brown rice
- Whole-grain bread (I recommend sprouted bread)
2. Eat an Alkaline Diet
If there’s such thing as a pH balance diet, it’s one that includes lots of green plants and other alkalizing foods. It’s also smart to purchase as much organic food as possible, since crops that are grown in organic, mineral-dense soil tend to be more alkalizing and have higher vitamin and mineral content. Here are foods that are included in a well-rounded alkaline diet:
- Leafy green vegetables — kale, chard, beet greens, dandelion, spinach, wheat grass, alfalfa grass, etc.
- Other non-starchy veggies — mushrooms, tomatoes, avocado, radishes, cucumber, jicama, broccoli, oregano, garlic, ginger, green beans, endive, cabbage, celery, zucchini and asparagus
- Raw foods — Uncooked fruits and vegetables are said to be biogenic or “life-giving.” Cooking foods can deplete alkalinizing minerals. Increase your intake of raw foods, and try juicing or lightly steaming fruits and vegetables. Ideally try to consume a good portion of your produce raw or only lightly cooked (such as steamed), as raw foods can help supply high levels of alkalizing minerals.
- Superfoods — maca root, spirulina, sea veggies, bone broth and green powder mixes that contain chlorophyll
- Healthy fats — coconut oil, MCT oil or virgin olive oil (fats found in wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef, cage-free eggs, nuts, seeds and organic grass-fed butter are also good additions to your diet, even if they aren’t necessarily alkalizing)
- Starchy plants — sweet potato, turnips and beets.
- Plant proteins — almonds, navy beans, lima beans and most other beans
- Most fruits — Strangely enough, acidic fruits such as grapefruit and tomatoes don’t create acidity in the body. They do just the opposite and contribute to an alkaline environment. Citrus fruits, dates and raisins are all very alkalizing and may help prevent acidosis. (12)
- Green drinks (vegetable juices) — Drinks made from green vegetables and grasses in powder form are loaded with alkaline foods and chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is structurally similar to our own blood and alkalizes the blood. (13)
- Apple cider vinegar — ACV tastes acidic but actually may help restore pH balance.
Depending on your current state of health and your goals, you might have even better success with reversing acidity by adhering to an alkalizing, very low-carb ketogenic diet. The keto diet and its foods are also supportive of pH balance include: healthy fats and oils, all types of leafy greens, powdered greens/drink mixes and superfoods.
Most high protein foods are acid forming, so if you’re eating lots of meat and animal foods, it’s important to balance these with alkalizing plant foods. (14) If you’re following a low-carb diet and taking steps to reduce acidity, then you can eat the foods mentioned above and also incorporate some legumes, beans, nuts and lower amounts of starchy plants (since these contain more sugar and carbs).
3. Drink Alkaline Water
According to the Water Research Center’s website, “The normal range for pH in surface water systems is 6.5 to 8.5 and for groundwater systems is 6 to 8.5.” (15) This means that there is a lot of variation when it comes to pH levels between different sources of water.
When water has a pH level less than 6.5, it may be considered “acidic, soft, and corrosive.” This means it may potentially leach metal ions such as iron, manganese, copper, lead, and zinc from aquifers, plumbing fixtures, and piping, plus contain certain toxic metals and have a sour taste. The best way to treat the problem of acidic (low pH) water is to use a neutralizer that raises the pH.
Alkaline water is just what it sounds like: water that is highly alkaline, with a pH of between 9 to 11. Adding pH drops or baking soda to your water also boosts alkalinity. Distilled water is neutral, with a pH of 7. (16)
Water filtered using a reverse osmosis filter is slightly acidic, with a pH level slightly lower than 7. Distilled water and filtered water may not be too alkaline, but as far as pH balance is concerned they are still a better option than tap water or purified bottled water that are more acidic.
4. Reduce Exposure to Drugs, Toxins and Chemicals
Many different drugs, chemicals, pollutants and toxins can disturb pH balance and contribute to acidity — such as alcohol, products containing caffeine, acetazolamide, opioids, sedatives, carbonic anhydrase inhibitors, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and aspirin. (17) Other types of poisoning and chemical exposure can also cause acidosis, which can be very dangerous when it becomes severe. (18)
It’s important to address any underlying health conditions that might be causing you to rely on these drugs regularly. For example, might a lack of sleep, stress, sedentary lifestyle or even allergies be contributing to your health problems? Try to determine what types of steps you can take to naturally reduce your need for medications and drugs. If you live or work in an environment with lots of air pollution, take steps to protect yourself as much as possible.
Testing Your pH Level
- You can test your pH by purchasing strips at your local health foods store or pharmacy.
- You can measure your pH with saliva or urine. Your second urination of the morning will give you the best results.
- You compare the colors on your test strip to a pH scale chart that comes with your test strip kit.
- During the day, the best time to test your pH is one hour before a meal and two hours after a meal.
- If you test with your saliva, you want to try to ideally stay between a pH of 6.8 and 7.3 (remember that optimal pH is about 7.365).
As mentioned above, certain foods on the acidic list — like eggs, meat and walnuts — might not be alkalizing, but don’t let that scare you away from eating them. They contain a host of health benefits like antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.
A healthy balance is what we are shooting for where dietary pH is concerned. Eating a variety of foods, focusing on quality, and addressing other lifestyle concerns are all important for maintaining homeostasis (balance).
- pH is short for “potential of hydrogen,” which is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of our body’s fluids and tissues. pH is measured on a pH scale ranging from 0 to 14.
- The healthiest pH level for the human body is slightly more alkaline than acidic, with an optimal pH of 7.365 (although this fluctuates slightly throughout the day).
- Causes of acidosis (too much acidity) include a poor diet, poor gut health, certain medications and drugs, kidney or lung disease, and many other unhealthy lifestyle habits.
- An alkaline diet is one that includes whole foods that have positive effects on the bodily systems and processes needed to maintain healthy pH. An alkaline diet includes lots of fresh vegetables and whole fruits, some raw foods, green juices, beans, nuts and healthy fats.
- Foods that are acidic and can contribute to pH imbalance include: high-sodium foods, processed grains, too much meat and animal protein, added sugars, and conventional milk.