Balancing your body’s pH for better health
You had low-fat yogurt, mango, and a cup of black tea with honey for breakfast. Lunch was a turkey-breast sandwich, and you snacked on grapes and organic peanuts. You’re trying to eat healthy, so why don’t you feel healthy? Why are you fatigued, sick, or unable to lose those last ten pounds?
The truth may be that your “healthy” diet is not so healthy after all. Rather, it’s filled with acidic foods like meat, sugar, white flour, tea, and dairy. Eating too many of these foods and not enough alkaline ones—vegetables, tubers, olive oil, quinoa—can cause an acid imbalance in your body. And that’s a problem, says Christopher Vasey, ND, author of The Acid-Alkaline Diet for Optimum Health.
“Our bodies need both acid and alkaline compounds to function properly,” says Vasey. “An acid condition, or acid imbalance, means that the blood and cellular fluids in the body have an acidic pH [the relative proportion of acid to alkaline] and not enough alkaline compounds to balance them.”
Chronically acidic blood (acidosis) can cause a variety of conditions, including fatigue, foggy thinking, weight gain, and heartburn, and may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, according to research from Austria. Other studies link the condition to bone loss and increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, while 2007 research published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine found that acid imbalances elevate the risk of chronic diseases. A 2006 study published in the International Journal of Oncology and a 2010 review published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine linked acidosis and chronic inflammation to an increased risk of cancer.
Many staples of the American diet—processed foods, meat, dairy, eggs, fish, corn, peanuts, chocolate, refined sugar, artificial sweeteners, and wheat—are acidic. Alkaline foods balance acidic foods, but most of us don’t consume enough alkalizing choices or participate in activities to reduce acidosis, such as exercise and stress management.
“Most people have a tendency toward overacidity,” says Susan Lark,
MD, author of Eat Papayas Naked: The pH-Balanced Diet for Super Health and Glowing Beauty. “It’s the unfortunate result of the typical American diet and lifestyle.”
Understanding your pH
A food is classified as acid or alkaline depending on its mineral content. Alkaline foods contain more alkaline-forming minerals, like calcium, magnesium, manganese, iron, and potassium, than acid-forming minerals such as phosphorous, copper, and sulfur. Kale, for example, is alkaline-forming because it’s rich in calcium and magnesium, while sodas are acid-forming because they’re high in phosphorous.
The body’s pH is measured on a scale of one (the most acidic) to 14 (the most alkaline); neutral is seven. The optimal pH of blood is 7.2 to 7.4, or slightly alkaline. If that narrow range drops by as little as 0.2, your body responds by trying to neutralize excess acid, and pulls minerals from the blood. If blood doesn’t contain enough calcium, magnesium, potassium, and other acid-buffering minerals, the body then draws on reserves in the bones or other tissues, such as the liver and heart, which can lead to serious medical problems.
Resolving the acid issue
You can learn if you have an acid imbalance by using inexpensive pH test strips, available at most pharmacies. Over the course of a day, test the pH of your urine with the strips each time you go to the bathroom; calculate an average at the end of the day Urine’s optimal pH is around seven, says Vasey. A slightly more acid measure—6.5 to 6.7—is normal, too, and common if you’ve just consumed an acidic food like coffee. “But if it’s lower than 6.5, day after day,” he says, “you should start to worry.”
If you’re overly acidic, simple shifts in diet and lifestyle can restore balance. The first step is to reduce stress. “During a stress response, the muscles get tense and tight, breathing is shallow, and oxygen flow is reduced,” Lark says. “Because oxygen is alkalizing to the body and carbon dioxide is acidic, when we’re not inhaling and exhaling fully, we tend to become overly acidic.”
Deep breathing reduces stress and increases the rate at which carbon dioxide is released from the body. Exercise also relieves stress and reduces acidity. Even simple activities like brisk walks or jumping jacks increase respiration and oxygenate blood, helping the body become more alkaline. Don’t push it, though: Excess or overly intense exercise can cause a buildup of lactic acid in the muscles and create a greater tendency toward overacidity.
Still, diet has the biggest impact on pH. Most experts agree that a seven-to-three ratio of alkaline-to-acid foods is ideal for optimal health and wellbeing. But choose your acidic foods wisely, says Michelle Schoffro Cook, ND, author of The Ultimate pH Solution: Balance Your Body Chemistry to Prevent Disease and Lose Weight. Don’t waste your acid allowance on unhealthy choices like coffee, soda, white flour, and sugar. Instead, choose nutrient-dense acidic foods, such as beans, nuts, whole grains, and fruit.
Not even sugar, salt, and meat are necessarily forbidden—just consume them in small amounts, preferably in an unprocessed form to reap the most of naturally occurring minerals. Choose organic when possible to decrease exposure to acid-forming pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones.
Some experts disagree on how to classify certain alkaline- and acid-forming foods. Such foods—known as weak acidics—include tomatoes, whey, and citrus fruits, and contain a fair amount of acid that may be metabolized as alkaline in the body.
“Acid production largely depends on individual metabolic differences,” explains Vasey. “Some people are capable of oxidizing the acids in weak acidic foods to make them alkaline: some people are not. A lemon may be acid-forming for one person and alkaline-forming for another.”
Learn your body’s response to weak acidics by testing your urine with pH strips before eating a food, then measuring again two to three hours later. If your pH doesn’t change, you may be able to oxidize the acids in that particular food. You can also try cutting out all weak acidics for a few weeks to see if you notice a difference in symptoms.
Ways to stay balanced
Correcting a pH imbalance may take months, depending on how long you’ve been acidic. Generally, though, most people can expect to see improvements within a few weeks, says Vasey. If you’re ready to embark on a more balanced approach to life, start with these simple steps.
Clear your cupboards of highly acid-forming foods Get rid of the worst offenders: alcohol, table salt, white sugar, artificial sweeteners, coffee, soft drinks, refined and processed foods, trans-fats, and white flour.
Stock up on whole foods Vegetables are the most alkalizing of all foods, so just by focusing on this food group, you’ll instantly begin to transform your pH. While other whole foods—such as beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains—tend to be more acid-forming than vegetables, they’re far less acidic than processed foods and animal products.
Eat fruit in moderation Fruit is nutritious but highly acid forming for most people. Limit your intake to one serving a day, especially at the beginning of your regimen. Stick to low-acid fruits, like avocados, grapefruit, peaches, apples, raspberries, and melons.
Make lower-acid substitutions Replace white sugar with stevia or raw, unfiltered honey. Substitute coconut or almond milk for cow’s milk. Replace sodas with sparkling water flavored with a splash of lemon juice.
Don’t try to change your diet overnight Start with a fifty-fifty ratio of acid to alkaline foods, or make one meal a day alkaline. Begin by adding alkaline foods rather than eliminating acidic ones. Make the transition slowly, and you’ll be more likely to stick with it.
It may not be the easiest diet to follow, but if you can stick to it, you should start to notice results in a few weeks. “Minor aches and pains will start to disappear, you’ll sleep better and feel more energetic, your thinking will be clear and alert, and you may lose several pounds,” says Cook. “That’s usually enough to convince most people to stick with it for the long term.”
Lisa Turner is a food writer, nutrition consultant, and psychology of eating coach, with more than 25 years of professional experience and training. She has written five books on health and nutrition and hundreds of magazine articles. For more information, go to inspiredeating.com.
Acid-Alkaline Shopping List
Alkaline foods: Almonds, artichokes, asparagus, avocados, beets, broccoli, buckwheat, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, flaxseed oil, green beans, leafy greens, lentils, millet, olive oil, onions, potatoes, pumpkinseeds, quinoa
Slightly-acidic foods: Black beans, Brazil nuts, cantaloupe, chickpeas, dates, hazelnuts, nectarines, plums, sunflower seeds, walnuts
Weak acidic foods: Berries, citrus fruits, honey, tomatoes, vinegar, whey
Acidic foods: Alcohol, chocolate, coffee, dairy, eggs, most fruit, mayonnaise, peanuts, processed foods, refined vegetable oils, saturated fat, soft drinks, soy sauce, sugar, white flour