Lesson #1: Your Body's pH

Balance is key

Our bodies are able to function reasonably well in various states of imbalance, whether it's our microbiome out of balance or silent inflammation in our bodies or an imbalance of Omega-6 or Omega-3's.  One aspect, however, that is not optional is the body's pH (pH is a measure of acidity or alkalinity, in this case, in the body).  The acid-base balance in body fluids is one of the most vital aspects of living.

The balance needs to be controlled within a narrow range.  Values outside of this range are not compatible with life; our cells only function at a certain acid-base balance.  No matter what, the body will maintain a narrow acid-base range by any means necessary.

A disturbance of the acid-base balance occurs when acid-base changes surpass the body’s ability to regulate it, or when normal regulatory mechanisms become ineffective. This can happen with chronic consumption of an acidic diet.

While it is normal for the body to create some acidity, (through exercise, for example, and there are some disease states that induce acidosis), foods — based on their digestibility, micronutrient composition, protein content, and a number of other factors — can lead to marked fluctuations in the acid-base status of the body.

When a food is ingested, digested into tiny bits, and then absorbed as molecules, each component from that food will go through the kidneys where it is identified as either an acid-forming compound or a base-forming one. And when all is said and done (at the end of a meal or at the end of a day), and all the acid-producing and base-producing micro- and macronutrients have been processed by the kidneys, there is an acid-base load. If what was eaten has provided more acidic components, it will manifest as an acid load on the body.  If it provides more basic components, it will manifest as a base load on the body.

Why acid is bad

Every cell of the body functions optimally within a certain pH range.  In different cells, this optimal range is different, however, the net pH of the body has to remain tightly regulated.

One common problem with most industrialized societies is that our diets produce what’s called a “low grade chronic metabolic acidosis.” In other words, we eat a lot of acid-forming foods and this means that we’re chronically in a state of high acidity.

Here's the thing, the body must, at all costs, operate at a stable pH.  So dietary acid load has to be neutralized.  The body has a number of ways to do this.

Stealing buffers

The main way to lower the acidity in the body is to use "buffering substances", such as minerals and proteins that often get taken from elsewhere.

For example, the body can use calcium and phosphorus to buffer acid loads. Where’s the biggest stockpile of these minerals in the body?  Your bones.  One of the primary causes of osteoporosis is the loss of calcium from bones to buffer acid loads in the body, not lack of dietary calcium.  The United States, Finland, England, Israel and Sweden have the highest intake of calcium from dairy, yet they also have the highest rates of osteoporosis.

Along with weakening your bones, kidney stone formation is also increased.

Glutamine is another buffer used to counteract the high dietary acid loads.  Most glutamine is found in muscles.  Thus, to neutralize the excess of dietary acids, glutamine is leached from muscle, which can contribute to muscle loss.

Interestingly, low-grade metabolic acidosis seems to worsen with age. This could be due to an age-related decline in kidney function (and acid excretion).  Osteoporosis and muscle wasting are also unfortunate consequences of aging. It is possible that some of the bone and muscle loss evident as individuals get older is a result of diet-induced acidosis. This means that employing a few simple acid-base strategies may help slow osteoporosis and sarcopenia (losing muscle).

Acid build up from physical exercise can also lead to muscular stiffness, fatigue and joint soreness.

The good news is that you can affect the acid/base status of your body with the foods you eat.

What are acidic and basic foods?

You can’t judge the acid-forming and basic/alkaline-forming properties of a food by the actual acidity of the food itself. For example, citrus fruits and vinegars are acidic, but when we consume them, they are alkaline-forming.  What determines a food’s acidity or alkalinity is how it breaks down when digested.

Most of the foods that contain exclusively protein tend to be high in sulfur-containing amino acids that are metabolized toward sulfuric acid.

Most plant foods don’t contain high levels amino acids and are generally alkaline-forming.  The alkaline forming plant foods help to neutralize the acid-forming protein foods.  Foods that contain primarily fat are typically more neutral.

Due to food processing and the cheap availability of animal protein (meat), most diets tend to be acidic.  This is due to the high intake of dairy foods, grains and meats.  The intake of these acid-forming foods needs to be balanced with adequate vegetable and fruit intake (alkaline-forming foods).

Overly acidic diet: too much protein, processed foods, grains, dairy

Balanced diet: ensures adequate intake of alkaline-forming fruits and vegetables

We may benefit from having an even distribution of acid-forming and alkaline-forming foods in the diet. Even consuming slightly more alkaline-forming foods (vs. acid-forming foods) may be beneficial for long-term health outcomes.

Alkaline-forming foods

Acid-forming foods

Neutral/varied foods

Vegetables

Fruits

Green tea

Dairy

Meat

Fish

Artificial sweeteners

Legumes

Most whole grains

Isolated proteins (e.g., soy and whey)

Soft drinks

Vegetable oils

Butter

Margarine

Nuts

Seeds


Fix it!

After perusing this list it is easy to see that the typical modern diet is suspect.  A neutralization of the Western diet without a change in energy intake has been shown to improve bone health.  A few simple food substitutions and/or a few inexpensive supplement additions can correct your acid-base woes.  Here are some steps to accomplish this goal:

  • add more vegetables regardless of the final tally. Everyone can always benefit from more vegetables in the diet. Many bone specialists are now recognizing that the most effective way to improve bone health is to eat lots of fruits and vegetables.
  • If you’re eating a big meal that’s going to be a net acid producer and don’t want to add more basic foods, consider adding a small amount of glutamine to this meal.  Glutamine supplements are available and have been shown to neutralize acidosis.
  • A cheaper alternative to glutamine supplementation is either sodium or potassium bicarbonate supplementation. You can add sodium bicarbonate (in the form of baking soda) to your beverages.  A small 2-5g dose of baking soda should do the job.  An alternative to baking soda is Alka-Seltzer.
  • Adding sodium to foods can reduce the acidity of the meal.

Another interesting fact is that while a high protein diet is acid forming, the high protein diet also seems to counteract some of its own acid loading potential. In other words, while protein produces an acid load, it also increases the body’s capacity for excreting those acids. None of the other acid producing foods are as effective as protein in doing so. Besides, just like with the other acid-forming foods, all you have to do is consume enough basic foods and supplements to neutralize the acidity.


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