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What Is the Alkaline Diet (and Why Does It Work)?

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“Levy, Jillian. “Is an Alkaline Diet the Key to Longevity?” Dr. Axe, January 27, 2020. https://draxe.com/nutrition/alkaline-diet.”

Why the Alkaline Diet Works—Without Resorting to Hand-Wavy Magic

Curious about the Alkaline Diet? To explain it, let’s start off with a really quick primer on pH and the theory behind the Alkaline Diet. The pH scale measures the acidity and alkalinity of a substance. It’s an abbreviation for potential of hydrogen. A substance with a pH below 7 is considered an acid, and a substance with a pH greater than 7 is considered a base (alkaline). (Note: “Base” and “alkaline” are not exactly the same thing. But they’re close, and we’re going to save a paragraph of big, science-y words by keeping things simple.) A pH score of 7 is neutral. The pH level of the human body varies from place to place. Overall, we are slightly alkaline, at 7.4 on the pH scale.

In chemical terms, an acid is a proton donor. A base does the opposite, accepting a proton from another substance. For those of you not wearing a white lab coat and safety goggles, let me explain via analogy. (Actual scientists may want to look away.) Acids are like service stations that always add air to your tires. Bases are like service stations that always let air out of your tires. Either could be good or bad, depending on the situation. (Scientists may now resume reading.)

The idea behind the Alkaline Diet is that our modern diet produces too much acid in the body. Trying to run a body in an acidic environment causes problems like increased inflammation and disease.[note]Levy, Jillian. “Is an Alkaline Diet the Key to Longevity?” Dr. Axe, January 27, 2020. https://draxe.com/nutrition/alkaline-diet[/note] In our above analogy, this would be like driving a car with overinflated tires. It can be done, but it’s not safe and can lead to a blowout.

Big Health Benefits From the Alkaline Diet

The Alkaline Diet attempts to balance the body’s pH by replacing some of our acidifying foods with more alkalizing foods. A diet rich in alkalizing foods can help to prevent plaque buildup in arteries, the formation of kidney stones, and the loss of bone density and muscle mass. It lowers the risk of stroke, helps with healthy weight maintenance, improves immune function, increases vitamin absorption, prevents magnesium deficiency, and lowers the risk of stroke.[note]Levy, Jillian. “Is an Alkaline Diet the Key to Longevity?” Dr. Axe, January 27, 2020. https://draxe.com/nutrition/alkaline-diet[/note][note]Schwalfenberg, Gerry K. “The Alkaline Diet: Is There Evidence That an Alkaline PH Diet Benefits Health?” Journal of environmental and public health. Hindawi Publishing Corporation, 2012. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3195546[/note]

It also helps to prevent cancers and can make certain cancer treatments more effective.[note]Levy, Jillian. “Is an Alkaline Diet the Key to Longevity?” Dr. Axe, January 27, 2020. https://draxe.com/nutrition/alkaline-diet.[note]Schwalfenberg, Gerry K. “The Alkaline Diet: Is There Evidence That an Alkaline PH Diet Benefits Health?” Journal of environmental and public health. Hindawi Publishing Corporation, 2012. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3195546/.[/note] An alkaline diet increases human growth hormone, which can improve cardiovascular health, cognition, and memory. The increased magnesium intake from alkalizing foods helps to activate vitamin D, resulting in a number of benefits throughout the body.[note]Schwalfenberg, Gerry K. “The Alkaline Diet: Is There Evidence That an Alkaline PH Diet Benefits Health?” Journal of environmental and public health. Hindawi Publishing Corporation, 2012. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3195546[/note]

As you can see, alkalizing foods can have quite a few benefits. But not everyone is a believer in the Alkaline Diet. Let’s take a look at some common objections.

Answers to Common Objections

Objection #1: How can lemons be alkalizing? Lemons are acidic!

This is the part that always sounds like hand-wavy magic. Lemons are indeed very acidic, but they’re also commonly referenced as alkalizing in the body. How? That’s literally the opposite of what they do.

The answer is surprisingly simple. Lemons aren’t made up of one thing—lemon molecules. They are made up of many different elements and chemical compounds. When your body digests a lemon, it breaks the lemon up into its base components. Some components are very acidic. Other components are not. Your body will use and expel some of these components quickly. Others will remain in the body for a long time. Some will be flushed out without ever being absorbed. Your body’s main takeaway from a lemon does not have to be its acidity. So it’s true. After being metabolized, lemons are, indeed, alkalizing.

Objection #2: Your body’s pH is tightly regulated. It can’t become alkaline or acidic.

This objection has some truth to it. You really can’t alter your body’s pH very much. But “not very much” isn’t the same as “not at all”. And because our bodies are so sensitive to small changes in pH, even a little change is significant.

Some people object to the use of urine pH test strips. They’ll say (correctly) that the pH of urine can vary a lot, but the body’s pH doesn’t change very much. While true, this doesn’t make the test invalid. It’s still a sign of what’s going on inside your body.

Your body is having to do work and expend resources every time we give it acidifying foods. It’s not a problem that we eat acidifying foods now and again. Many healthy foods are also acidifying. The concern is more about the total acid load that the body has to deal with.[note]Levy, Jillian. “Is an Alkaline Diet the Key to Longevity?” Dr. Axe, January 27, 2020. https://draxe.com/nutrition/alkaline-diet/.[/note]

Handling this much acid depletes our electrolyte levels. We lose calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium. Calcium strengthens our bones and supports the heart. Magnesium has a number of vital functions in the body. Sodium helps to control blood pressure and balance fluids in the body. Potassium helps with correct muscle function, and is very important for heart function. By getting these out of balance, we invite in a number of health problems.[note]Link, Rachael. “Healthier Water Option or PH Disruptor?” Dr. Axe, October 4, 2018. https://draxe.com/nutrition/alkaline-water[/note]

Objection #3: The Alkaline Diet is healthy because the foods are healthy. It isn’t about pH. 

This type of objection isn’t disputing the health value of the Alkaline Diet. It’s only disagreeing about what makes it healthy. Do light bulbs emit light, or suck in darkness? Scientifically, it matters. Functionally, it doesn’t. Even if I’m wrong about why the Alkaline Diet works, we should still eat it, because it works.

Objection #4: An alkaline can be just as dangerous as an acid.

This objection gets mentioned when people vilify acids and speak about alkalizing foods as though they could do no wrong. It’s true that alkaline substances can be just as dangerous as acidic ones. Highly alkaline substances are very reactive. They can cause chemical burns, and should never be handled without proper precautions.

If we were eating an exclusively alkalizing diet, with only alkalizing stressors placed upon the body, we would start seeing more alkaline-related health problems. But the goal of an alkalizing diet isn’t actually to make the body alkaline. The goal is to move the body toward balance. And since most of us are eating an acidic diet, this means moving in an alkaline direction.

Alkalizing Foods and Activities

Many plant-based foods are highly alkalizing. Mushrooms, citrus, tomatoes, raisins, radish, cucumber, broccoli, garlic, watermelons, ripe bananas, and leafy greens are all excellent choices. Almonds and most beans are also highly alkalizing. At the center of each chlorophyll molecule is magnesium (an alkalizing mineral), making green drinks another healthy choice.

The soil a plant is grown in can affect its alkalizing properties.[note]Schwalfenberg, Gerry K. “The Alkaline Diet: Is There Evidence That an Alkaline PH Diet Benefits Health?” Journal of environmental and public health. Hindawi Publishing Corporation, 2012. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3195546/.[/note] Soils without adequate mineral levels can produce plants with less alkalizing ability. The plants grown in your own garden, with rich, organic soil amendments, would likely have a stronger alkalizing effect than commercially produced plants.[note]Levy, Jillian. “Is an Alkaline Diet the Key to Longevity?” Dr. Axe, January 27, 2020. https://draxe.com/nutrition/alkaline-diet/.[/note]

Alkalized water is another good choice. However, it comes with a couple of cautions. Drinking alkaline water with a meal can neutralize stomach acid, making digestion less efficient. Overly alkalized waters can be too intense for some body tissues.

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Exercise will lower your pH at first, but has a net effect of balancing the body’s pH afterward. Stress management and breathing techniques, like those found in yoga and some meditation practices, can also help the body to regulate pH levels.

Acidifying Foods and Activities

Remember that not all acidifying foods are bad! Many of the foods in this section are very good for you. But as it turns out, eating too much of a good thing is a bad thing. So make sure you get a balance of healthy acidifying foods and healthy alkalizing foods.

Good foods on the acidifying side of the isle would be grains, milk, peanuts, walnuts, and meats.[note]Levy, Jillian. “Is an Alkaline Diet the Key to Longevity?” Dr. Axe, January 27, 2020. https://draxe.com/nutrition/alkaline-diet/.[/note] Meat and milk from grass-fed animals will have a much weaker acidifying effect (and be more nutritious), compared to the grain-fed counterparts.[note]American Dairy Association North East. “Q: Is It Healthier to Drink Milk from Grass Fed Cows? W.” www.americandairy.com. American Dairy Association North East, March 31, 2015. https://www.americandairy.com/news-and-events/dairy-diary/qis-it-healthier-to-drink-milk-from-grass-fed-cows-whats-the-difference-between-this-type-of-milk-and-regular-milk.stml.[/note][note]Levy, Jillian. “Is an Alkaline Diet the Key to Longevity?” Dr. Axe, January 27, 2020. https://draxe.com/nutrition/alkaline-diet/.[/note]

Caffeinated beverages tend to be acidifying, as are alcoholic drinks. High-sodium foods, processed foods, foods with artificial sweeteners, and foods with artificial colorings and preservatives are also acidifying. Many times, these are all the same foods.

You should also beware of foods sprayed with pesticides, herbicides, or other forms of pollution. Even if they weren’t acidifying, they’ve been treated with poisons. So that’s an obvious one to avoid.

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We also have some non-food acidifiers. Chronic stress, overuse of antibiotics, and chemical exposure from plastics and beauty products can all contribute to an acidic body. A lack of exercise is acidifying, as is an excess of exercise.

Lastly, poor breathing habits can also contribute to an acidic body. Our lungs have an important role in making quick changes to our body’s pH level. When we get into the habit of taking quick, shallow breaths, we handicap that system, making our body tend to run more on the acidic side.[note]American Dairy Association North East. “Q: Is It Healthier to Drink Milk from Grass Fed Cows? W.” www.americandairy.com. American Dairy Association North East, March 31, 2015. https://www.americandairy.com/news-and-events/dairy-diary/qis-it-healthier-to-drink-milk-from-grass-fed-cows-whats-the-difference-between-this-type-of-milk-and-regular-milk.stml[/note] [note]Levy, Jillian. “Is an Alkaline Diet the Key to Longevity?” Dr. Axe, January 27, 2020. https://draxe.com/nutrition/alkaline-diet[/note]

What Do You Think?

Are you a believer in the Alkaline Diet? Do you have any favorite alkalizing foods or stories to share? Let us know in the comments.

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This post was written by Scott Sexton

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