Alkaline, or ionized, water has become a trendy item in the health food world. The companies selling these products declare the need to alkalize our acidic bodies to prevent internal damage to prevent disease and achieve optimal health.
After a quick Google search of alkaline water products, I was appalled at the claims being hurled at consumers, which are uninformed at best and predatory at worst. Healthy glowing skin! Increased metabolism and energy! Slow the aging process! Optimal hydration! Prevent bone loss and cancer! Antioxidant power!
From pricey bottled waters to ionizing machines costing hundreds of dollars, these companies have everything to gain by convincing you that alkaline water is crucial for health and wellness. Unfortunately, these claims are a lot of noise with no science to back them up. Further, a basic knowledge of human anatomy and physiology debunks some of them without even digging for scientific research and here's why.
WHAT IS PH?
When we are talking about acidity and alkalinity we are referring to the pH. The pH is the measure of the concentration of hydrogen ions in a solution. The scale runs from 1 to 14, with 7 being neutral. The lower the pH, the more acidic the environment and the higher the concentration of free hydrogen ions. The higher the pH, the more alkaline/basic the solution and the lower the concentration of free hydrogen ions.
Balancing pH within the body is a perpetual act of managing gains and losses of hydrogen ions that we acquire as a result of our body's normal metabolic processes and at our digestive tract from the foods we eat.
If there is one thing these companies have right, it is that pH is important. In humans, a blood pH that is too low, or acidic, can have life altering consequences for the body by changing the shape of proteins, damaging cell membranes and altering enzyme activity among other things. But, a blood pH that is too high, or alkaline, can have just as detrimental effects- it just clinically isn't as common.
What they don't tell you, is that a healthy body already has several mechanisms in place that keep your blood pH tightly regulated, between 7.35 and 7.45 (slightly alkaline). In fact, if it ventures too far beyond these parameters you will not be far from death if you aren’t dead already.
While foods can be alkaline-producing (fruits, nuts, vegetables, legumes) or acid- producing (animal products, caffeine, alcohol, refined sugars), the foods we eat and the fluids we drink have zero effect on body pH.
HOW DO OUR BODIES REGULATE pH?
As mentioned, the human body is constantly producing acids as a result of normal metabolic processes, and without compensatory mechanisms could not survive. Homeostasis of blood pH is maintained by several buffering systems and mechanisms peformed by the kidneys and lungs. For the purposes of this post, I will be referring to how our body regulates acidity in a healthy human body.
ONE: There are three main buffering systems utilized by the body to maintain pH. A buffer is a substance that reacts with a hydrogen ion and by this act helps to stabilize pH.
TWO: Kidneys synthesize their own buffers that react with free hydrogen ions. These compounds are then secreted into urine for excretion. So, acid-producing foods may raise the acid content of your urine, but will not change the acidity of your body.
THREE: Healthy lungs do their part to eliminate acids by expelling carbon dioxide when we exhale.
The best part? Your body does this for free!
AND ONE MORE THING...
Another thing the ionized water companies fail to mention, is one particular area of the body where a highly acidic environment is crucial- your stomach. Hydrochloric acid (HCl), secreted by the stomach's parietal cells, creates a highly acidic environment at a pH of 1-3. This acidity enables the activation of the enzyme pepsin, which assists in breakdown of proteins, releasing amino acids, and bound vitamins and minerals so that your small intestine may absorb them.
In addition, HCl in the stomach is your body's first line of defense against pathogens lurking in foods you consume. Wondering why that low pH doesn't destroy your stomach? Another type of cell in your stomach, the goblet cell, produces a mucus that lines your stomach to protect it.
Okay, so when food leaves the stomach, that's when we need alkaline water to neutralize the stomach acid, right? Nope! As the acidic contents of your stomach enter the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine), they are hit with a heavy dose of sodium bicarbonate (an alkaline substance), courtesy of your pancreas. The bicarbonate neutralizes the acidic contents, so the mass may travel through the remainder of the GI tract without causing tissue damage.
Seeing a trend here? Your body is a fantastic machine that is designed and well-equipped to manage your pH. If your kidneys or lungs are not functioning to achieve this, you are not going to want alkaline water- you'll want to go directly to the ER.
The pH of human blood is tightly regulated within a narrow range. Acids produced by normal metabolic processes and the foods we eat are offset by regulatory mechanisms within our body. At this time, there is no science to support the grandiose claims made for alkaline water.
The RD says, don't expect to have an unhealthy diet and count on so-called "alkaline" water to keep you healthy. Instead of purchasing expensive ionizing machines and bottled water, spend your money on fresh, whole foods like fruits and vegetables- things that ARE proven to support health. And....plain and simple, just drink more water.