What Does pH Mean?
If you want to understand how pH impacts your health, you need to know a few basic things about acids and bases. From your science classes in school, you probably remember some of this. (I actually took chemistry all the way to college level and never asked what pH stood for! So, if you’ve ever wondered, it’s a shortened form of “potential Hydrogen”.)
In the simplest of terms, pH measures how much hydrogen is going to be attracted to the solution you’re measuring. A strong base (alkaline) has a strong negative electrical charge and will attract a lot of hydrogen because hydrogen atoms (H+) have a positive electrical charge. A strong acid is already positively charged, so hydrogen will not be attracted to it. The pH scale starts at 1, which is a strong acid, and goes to 14, which is a strong base.
How Does pH Affect Your Body?
But enough of the chemistry recap. Why does any of this matter for you? Well, your human body, along with all other life on earth, is actually a very complex electro-chemical machine. It’s absolutely fascinating how it works, but I won’t bore you with all the nerdy details.
The gist of it is that your body uses acids and bases because they have electrical charges. And it’s electrical charges that create movement and energy. Your thoughts, nerve signals, muscles, and even your heart beat is the result of electrical impulses.
For all of this to work in a synchronized, efficient way, your cells need to be bathing in fluid with the correct pH. And I don’t just mean your blood. There is an extracellular fluid (fluid outside your cells) in your blood vessels, called plasma (it’s the watery part of blood that holds all your blood cells). But there is also extracellular fluid in other compartments and pockets of your body, like inside your spine and joints, and on the outside of your blood vessels. All of these extracellular fluids impact your health.
What is Acidosis?
When people talk about the acid-alkaline balance of the human body, it’s the pH of your extracellular fluid they’re referring to, which should be slightly alkaline at about 7.4 (pure water is neutral at 7). The reason this is so important is because it controls how well your body can function. When your body fluids become acidic, it’s called acidosis, and it causes a range of health issues.
Acidosis describes the medical extreme, where you have to go to hospital for treatment. But, of course, what happens very commonly is that people have a mild, ongoing version of the condition, that isn’t recognized by physicians, but can still have an impact on your health.
What is an Alkaline Diet?
An alkaline diet keeps your body fluids slightly alkaline, in the range they need to be for you to function at your best. If your extracellular fluids have become acidic for some reason, an alkaline diet can bring them back to a healthy range.
It’s not about the pH of the food you’re eating, it’s about how the food you’re eating influences your body’s pH. Even more specifically, it’s about how hard your body has to work to keep your pH under control after eating the foods.
Why is an Alkaline Diet Important?
See, if you eat foods that make your body acidic, it will try to compensate and get back to a healthy balance by releasing alkaline minerals to neutralize the acids. Unfortunately, one of the main minerals it uses for this is calcium, and it takes it right out of your bones. This can leave your bones deficient in this important mineral. Low calcium levels in bones are associated with osteoporosis, sarcopenia and other metabolic bone diseases.
Calcium and minerals can also be pulled from other body parts, eventually causing them to develop to deficiencies, too. These deficiencies can have both short-term and long-term effects on your health, as they keep your cells from functioning properly.
Struggling to function, your cells, tissues and organs can start to show symptoms of inflammation. This can be the worst for your kidneys, as they do most of the work correcting acidosis. So, they can become stressed and overworked over time.
What Foods are in the Alkaline Diet?
Basically, all fresh fruits and vegetables are in the alkaline diet. It can seem confusing at first, when you see lemons at the top of the list of alkalizing foods, and you know that they taste acidic. But remember it’s not about the pH of foods that you’re eating, it’s about the pH of your extracellular fluid after you’ve eaten the foods.
The reason fruits and vegetables are alkalizing is because they’re packed full of minerals, enzymes, and vitamins. This replaces the nutrients you’ve lost from trying to keep your body fluids alkaline. A general guideline is to eat 80% alkaline foods and 20% acid-forming foods.
This is important because some of the acidic foods are part of a normal healthy diet. For example, all meats are acid-forming, but the protein can give you health benefits as long as you balance it with a big serving of alkalizing vegetables.
Take Home Message
The pH scale is a measure of acidity and goes from 1-14, where 1 is a strong acid and 14 is a strong base. Your body uses acids and bases because they carry electrical charges. All of your physical energy and movement is powered by these electrical impulses. For this to work well, you need to have the right balance of acids and bases in your body fluids. When your body fluids become too acidic, it’s known as acidosis.
Acidosis can make you unwell in both the short-term and the long-term. The alkaline diet is high in nutrients that your body uses to control your pH. If you don’t get enough of these nutrients in your diet, your body compensates by taking minerals from your bones and other organs. This can lead to mineral deficiency which causes many different health issues. The foundation of the alkaline diet is plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.