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Alkaline Food and Water: Miracle or Myth?

The alkaline water craze has been going on for several years now. Many websites promote alkaline water as an essential health item, and others claim it to be a panacea. On the other hand, some scientists have labelled it as a hoax, designed to make people buy expensive machines that they don’t need. So, who is right? This article examines the pros and cons, the facts and myths of alkaline water.

What Is the Acid-Alkaline Theory?

The acid-alkaline theory began in the 1800s. Scientists conducted a test on rabbits to study the role of diet in the acidity of urine. It was discovered that the more vegetables the rabbits consumed, the more alkaline the urine, and the more meat-based their diet was, the more acidic the urine (1)

This rabbit test led scientists to begin burning food in test tubes to determine the pH level of the ash to discover which foods were more acid- or more alkaline-producing. This became known as “the acid-ash hypothesis” (2). This medical hypothesis was founded on the belief that acidic diets lead to a number of negative health impacts and diseases. The following was discovered (3):

Acid
  • Acid ash is produced by: cheese, convenience foods such as canned soups and frozen pizza, meat, certain grains, many processed foods, sugary foods, and genetically modified foods.
  • Acid-forming foods were found to contain more chlorine, sulfur, and phosphorus.
Alkaline
  • Alkaline ash is produced by: most fruits and vegetables, eggs, nuts, seeds, legumes, tofu, buckwheat, and soybeans.
  • Alkaline-forming foods were found to contain more  potassium, calcium, sodium and magnesium.

These discoveries gave rise to “the alkaline diet,”(4) which was founded on the belief that by eating different foods you can change the pH balance of your body. Many companies ran wild with this theory, offering miracle-type cures to people who ate a high alkaline diet or followed the 80/20 rule which says that 80% of your diet should be alkaline-forming foods and 20% should be acid-forming foods. After this, companies started marketing alkaline water as a health cure for our highly acidic diets that were posited as the root cause of many diseases. Indeed, the typical American diet has become increasingly acidic due to the increasing consumption of mass-manufactured meat, processed foods, convenience foods, and other acid-forming foods. However, some scientists insist that there is no value in high-alkaline diets or drinking alkaline water and advise against such actions. So, which ideology should we trust? 

To answer this question we first need to understand pH levels:

Understanding pH Levels

How “alkaline” or “acidic” something is, is determined by its pH level. The pH scale ranges from 1 to 14, 1 being highly acidic and 14 being very alkaline. Most drinking water has a neutral pH of 7. On the other hand, alkaline water typically has a pH of 8 or 9 and acid water is anything with a pH of 6.5 or lower.

Additionally, most bottled water is on the slightly acidic side. Depending on the brand of bottled water, this pH level can range from 5 to 8 (5). However, bottled water from springs or artesian wells are naturally more alkaline because of the dissolved minerals in the water. 

Now that we have a better grasp of pH levels, let’s get back to the original question: whether the pros and cons of alkaline water are myths or facts.

The Myths and Facts

The pH of blood is usually around 7.4 (6). Many studies suggest that drinking alkaline water will neutralize the pH level of your blood. However, our bodies have their own ridgid way of controlling the pH level of our blood, so drinking alkaline water will have no impact on this process. The idea that you can change the pH level of your blood through what you drink is then a myth.

Alkaline water is ideal for cleaning tools and machinery, cleaning surfaces, and cleaning areas. Alkaline water machines are also perfect for disinfecting vegetables or countertops. So, this is a fact.

The idea that the higher the pH, the better it is for you is a myth. By the time the pH of water is above 8.5, the water can taste bitter. Calcium and magnesium carbonate build up in your pipes, and your skin can become dry, itchy, and irritated. If your family is experiencing any skin issues, check the pH of your water. In 2015, a town in Germany increased the pH level of their water to 12, which caused skin burns and toxic reactions among the residents (7).

There is no scientific evidence to support these claims. This is a myth (8) (9). In fact, a study to determine the potential risks of drinking alkaline water found that alkaline water impaired growth (10) and caused damage to the cardiac muscles of rat pups (11).

The stomach is highly acidic. This is because it secretes hydrochloric acid to break down food and kill food-borne pathogens. To do all this, your stomach acid needs to be at a pH level between 1.5 to 3.5. According to Dr. Tanis Fenton, a registered epidemiologist and dietitian at the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, “If you drink water that is slightly alkaline … the hydrochloric acid in the stomach quickly neutralizes it before it’s absorbed into the blood” (12). Furthermore, drinking water with a pH level above 8.8 has been proven to weaken digestion. This is because the higher pH deactivates digestive enzymes which would prevent your stomach from properly digesting food (13). It can be concluded then that this is a myth.

A 2012 study found that drinking alkaline water with a pH of 8.8 may help deactivate the acidic enzymes that cause acid reflux (14). So, this is a fact. However, drinking water with this pH level will also weaken your digestion, causing your stomach to not be able to break down food properly. Consult your doctor before using alkaline water to treat your acid reflux.

One study found that drinking alkaline water may benefit people who have diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure (15). However, this test was done in a petri dish, so we cannot be sure what the results would be if tested on humans. This claim is plausible.

A small study of 100 participants found that alkaline water increases blood viscosity more than regular water after a hard workout. Those who drank normal water experienced a blood flow increase of 3.36%, whereas those who drank alkaline water experienced a viscosity increase of 6.3% (16). An increased blood flow means that your blood can deliver more oxygen around your body more quickly. However, other factors like subject fitness and excitability may have played a role in this result. Because of this, a larger study would need to be conducted to determine the accuracy of this result. More research would need to be done on this topic, so our conclusion to this question would be that it is plausible.

According to Mayo Clinic, regular water is best for most people (17). Although there are some with acid reflux who benefit from drinking alkaline water, there are many possible side effects associated with drinking water with a high pH level. If you suffer from acid reflux, it may be better to use traditional medications. Because of this, this statement is a myth.

The idea that there is good and bad acid and alkaline is a fact. George Ohsawa published a paper in 1971 entitled: “Is Acid Yin: Is Alkaline Yang?”(18). In this study, he concluded that there are good acid-forming foods and bad acid-forming foods, and good alkaline-forming foods and bad alkaline-forming foods. An example of a good acid-forming food would be an orange, and an example of a bad acid-forming food would be frozen pizza. While Ohsawa concluded that it is best to have more alkaline-forming foods in your diet, like legumes, vegetables, and most fruits, it is also important to make sure we are having a balanced portion of good acid-forming foods like grapefruit, oranges, lemons, limes, and tomatoes.

Risks of Drinking Alkaline Water:

Despite the claimed positive impact of drinking alkaline water, consumption of or exposure to alkaline water may cause (19):

  • Skin irritations
  • Gastrointestinal issues 
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle twitching
  • Hand tremors
  • Tingling in the extremities
  • Confusion
  • Decrease of bone health
The Takeaway

Alkaline water is perfect for cleaning surfaces, fruit, other produce, and is a great cleaner. However, drinking water with a high pH can have negative health impacts. So, if you purchase an alkaline water machine, make sure to use it for cleaning purposes rather than for ingestion. If you decide to drink the alkaline water, make sure it is at a very low pH level (refrain from going above an 8) to avoid any negative health impacts.

Remember, the human body is a complex, incredible machine. If your pH levels are imbalanced, your body will trigger your kidneys to excrete excess acid through your urine, or you will exhale more carbon dioxide. Concerning the alkaline diet, it is important to remember that there is good acid and bad acid, good alkaline and bad alkaline. So, instead on focusing on the acid-forming or alkaline-forming properties of food and liquids, rather focus on maintaining a balanced, well-rounded diet. Avoid refined sugar, alcohol, processed foods, soda, and red meats, and replace these with good carbs, fruits, and vegetables — and be sure to wash your produce with alkaline water.

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