pH and your bones — why an alkaline diet makes sense
pH Levels and Your Body
Topics covered in this article:
- What is pH balance
- How your bones help maintain pH balance
- Causes of low-grade metabolic acidosis
- 10 simple ways to alkalize your diet
There’s a very simple approach to improving the health of your bones that practitioners here in the US have overlooked for almost a century now. It’s available to anyone, it’s natural, it’s not terribly expensive — and you don’t even need health insurance to use it.
The term “pH” literally means potential for hydrogen. It’s used to designate the concentration of hydrogen ions in a given fluid. The more hydrogen ions, the more acidic the fluid is. Here are the fundamentals:
- pH is measured on a logarithmic scale of 0 to 14.
- 7 is neutral — neither acidic nor alkaline.
- Anything above 7 is considered alkaline or “basic.”
- Anything below 7 is considered “acidic.”
- For survival, blood pH must be tightly regulated to stay between 7.35 and 7.45. (We are not talking about blood when we talk about alkalinity & ph levels in the body)
- pH of other bodily fluids varies more widely (We are talking about urine pH, for example, can range between 4.5-8.0).**
* The Acid Alkaline Food Guide, p 11.
I’m talking about an alkaline diet — this remarkably effective way of eating can help keep your acid-base (pH) balance in the optimal range so you can support your bones and your body. In over 20 years of working with women at the Center for Better Bones, I’ve witnessed tremendous improvement in the bones of women who have moved to an alkalizing diet.
But what exactly does pH have to do with bone health? Let’s take a closer look.
What pH means to your health
We evolved in an alkaline or “basic” mineral-rich ocean environment. It’s perfectly logical that our enzymes, immune systems, and repair processes all function at their best in an alkaline environment.
At the same time, our everyday metabolic processes produce a tremendous amount of acid. The molecular fuel we use to contract our muscles during intense exercise, for example, produces a build-up of positively-charged hydrogen atoms (protons), which makes us more acidic. When we digest foods with sulfur-containing amino acids, like animal proteins, we produce sulfuric acid as a metabolic by-product. Even our detox, immune, and stress responses can create substantial acidic by-products. So the body has the minute-to-minute task of neutralizing or getting rid of all this acid and bringing it back to the alkaline environment that’s best for its cells. In fact, your life depends on getting it back into balance!
The body is alkaline by design, but acid by function.
— Albert Szent–Gyögyi
Nobel Laureate and discoverer of vitamin C
Many people find it hard to believe that small fluctuations in pH can have dramatic effects on our health but they can. With our blood pH, the range is held tightly between 7.35 and 7.45 in our arteries, and between 7.31 and 7.41 in our veins. If a shift of even 0.1 above this range occurs in the blood pH, the blood becomes unable to deliver adequate oxygen and protect us from disease. The body works extremely hard to make sure the pH in the blood is stable and our continued life depends on this. The blood ph will always be in range unless there is some very serious illness which needs medical attention.
What we are talking as far as alkalinity, the alkalizing diet, and pH balance is NOT about the blood pH but rather an equilibrated urine pH.
Here at the Center for Better Bones we focus our attention on Metabolic Acidosis which concerns the effects of food and supplemental nutrients on pH balance. The level of metabolic acidosis is largely controlled by the kidneys and can be inferred from studying the pH of the urine. The ideal measurement would be 24 hour urine pH however this is a very complicated laboratory procedure which cannot be done at home. The next ideal measurement would be that of first morning urine, this is an equilibrated urine after the kidney has all night to deal with the metabolic acids.
What’s an alkalizing mineral?
When we talk about alkalizing minerals, understand that it is not really the minerals themselves that alkalize, but the anions (negatively charged ions) attached to the minerals. For example, alkalizing factors are the citrate in potassium citrate, the carbonate in calcium carbonate, or the ascorbate in calcium ascorbate. I call these “mineral complexes” or alkalizing “mineral salts.”
We have several built-in, automatic mechanisms that regulate pH, involving our kidneys, lungs, and skin. The lungs help by excreting acids as carbonic acid. The kidneys excrete acids through the urine after neutralizing them by drawing available mineral compounds from the blood and tissues (such as muscle tissues). But if the kidneys face excessive acid levels or insufficient buffering minerals in the blood and tissues, then the body is forced to tap into our bones’ alkaline mineral reserves, or the delicate kidney tissue will be burned by the acids.
How your bones help maintain pH balance
The vast majority of the alkalizing mineral complexes in our bodies are stored in our bones, where they serve two main purposes:
- They give our bones strength.
- They maintain a reserve for pH regulation of the blood and other bodily fluids.
Alkalizing or “basic” mineral complexes balance the effects of slight blood acidity. With even small variations in acidity, the body draws alkalizing minerals first from the blood, then, if necessary, from tissues such as muscle, and ultimately from the bone stores.
Over time, eating an imbalanced diet of excess animal protein, refined grains, sugar, alcohol and salt that is low in fruits and vegetables, forces your body to slip into a state of mild acidosis. Chronic stress, excessive or insufficient exercise, and environmental toxins add to this acid burden. Over the long term, this state of continual acidosis requires more and more of our mineral reserves to be pulled from the bones just to restore pH balance.
You probably wouldn’t notice being in a slightly acidic state — it isn’t associated with obvious immediate symptoms. But if it goes on for a long time, it can slowly lead to osteoporosis and other degenerative health disorders because bone-protecting minerals have been used up to restore pH balance. For example, loss of sodium and potassium reserves can leave many women susceptible to blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems. Metabolic acidosis can also affect protein metabolism, which can result in muscle wasting and decreased cell, tissue, and organ repair. Accumulated acids lead to accelerated aging, increased free radicals, and impaired antioxidant activity. Acidosis may also increase your risk of kidney stones, fluid retention, imbalanced gut flora, and growth of yeast, fungi, and bacteria, which all thrive in an acidic environment.
Causes of chronic low-grade metabolic acidosis
Whether we know it or not, most of us are affected by low-grade metabolic acidosis simply because we live in the modern world. Unfortunately, our modern lifestyle — especially the standard American diet (which I like to call “SAD”!) — actually encourages chronic low-grade metabolic acidosis, which makes us even more acidic.
Sources of chronic, low-grade metabolic acidosis
- Distress (excess cortisol and adrenaline)
- Delayed immune system reactions (from delayed immune sensitivities or responses).
- Environmental toxins
Never before has our food supply been so depleted of minerals and vital nutrients. And never before have we eaten diets so high in animal proteins, sweeteners, and processed food, with so few fruits and vegetables. We’re also under chronic stress, or are exposed to a vast array of pollutants.
In terms of diet, most of our so-called modern conveniences don’t help balance our bodies’ pH. High-protein power bars, ultra-caffeinated drinks, highly processed “fast” and “convenience” foods full of fillers and fats, refined flours and sugars are all acid-forming foods and your bones are paying the price! Yet when you move to a diet of alkalizing foods — whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and spices — you can quickly ease a great deal of this burden, using food to help your bones instead of hurt them.
The impact of one can of cola
A simple 12-ounce can of cola has a pH somewhere between 2.8 and 3.2, but our kidneys can’t excrete urine with a pH much lower than 5 without damaging the urinary tract. Your body has to do even more work first.
To process 12 ounces of cola so it can be excreted in the urine at a pH of 5, it must be diluted a hundred-fold. That means either the body must produce an additional 33 liters of urine (not likely to happen, since drinking enough water to make that much would be equivalent to drowning!), or take a corresponding amount of buffering substances from the bones to neutralize the excess acid.
This is a lot to buffer, all from just one little can of cola! Now imagine the effects of a can a day (or more!) for 10 to 20 years.
Keep in mind that food isn’t the only acid culprit here. Many women are exposed to overwhelming amounts of stress that can also add to the acid burden, affecting their bones. When we’re feeling overwhelmed by work, not getting enough sleep, eating poorly, and even when our minds are distracted by problems — the list can go on and on — our bodies release stress hormones known as adrenaline and cortisol. When this sort of stress occurs now and again, you can usually recover, but if this is your life all the time, it’s very damaging in the long run. When sustained at high levels, stress hormones can tilt the body toward acidosis and deteriorating bone health.
But I have some good news for you — you can relieve a great deal of the acid burden in your bones by making some simple food choices. When you do, your bones will be able to use their mineral stores for building bone, rather than fighting acidosis. A few adjustments to your diet and lifestyle can quickly shift your body away from a low-grade acidic state back to an ideal balance. In fact, changing to a more alkaline diet is probably the quickest and easiest way to do it.
10 ways to alkalize your diet
Some alkalizing fruits and veggies*
For more foods, see our chart on the acid-alkaline food spectrum and my book, The Acid-Alkaline Food Guide.
Make food your “stay well” medicine
The Greek physician Hippocrates said that food should be our first and most important medicine. This is truer now in the 21st century than ever before. When for every ailment, you have a pill to pop and a slew of corresponding side effects, it’s time for a new approach. If you are concerned about the strength of your bones now and for the future, start making a difference with an alkaline diet. We’ve used it to help women in all stages of bone health, and it works.
I’m Dr. Susan E Brown. I am a clinical nutritionist, medical anthropologist, writer and motivational speaker. Learn my time-tested 6 step natural approach to bone health in my online courses.
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