Eating Alkaline to Maximize Your Health
by Chris D. Meletis, N.D.
When you have that cheeseburger or piece of cake for dinner, you might think about the consequences it can have on your waistline or your cholesterol levels. But what you probably don’t consider is how it is affecting the alkalinity of your body.
Yet, based on current research, whether your body is mostly acidic or mostly alkaline may be one of the most important factors that determines how healthy you are and what diseases you contract.
Without appropriate pH levels in and around living organisms and cells, life on earth wouldn’t be possible. Human life depends upon a tightly controlled pH level in the serum. The pH level necessary for human survival is between 7.35 to 7.45 (slightly alkaline).
However, the net acid load of the human diet has changed a lot from the hunter gatherer civilization to the present day. As agriculture became more widespread over the last several thousand years and industrialization occurred over the last 200 years, potassium has decreased compared to sodium. Chloride also has increased compared to bicarbonate found in the diet. The ratio of potassium to sodium previously was 10 to 1. In the modern diet, it’s now 1 to 3.1
The modern diet is deficient in magnesium, potassium and fiber and rich in saturated fat, simple sugars, sodium and chloride. This results in a diet that sends the body into a state of metabolic acidosis.
Most people in the western world have a highly acidic body, the result of eating plenty of animal-based protein, dairy products and grains. Fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, often lacking in the American diet, send the body into a more alkaline state. And it’s this alkaline state that can benefit your health.
Although the intracellular pH of most cancer cells is normal, the extracellular pH of malignant solid tumors is acidic—ranging from 6.5 to 6.9. This is because cancer cells convert glucose into lactic acid. Normal tissues, on the other hand, are significantly more alkaline, 7.2 to 7.5.2
Extracellular acidosis is toxic to most normal cells. But cancer cells can adapt and thrive under these harsh conditions.3
The tumor cells use this acidic environment to their advantage since the acid pH stimulates tumor cell invasion and the spread of cancer (known as metastasis).
It’s thought that acid from the tumor diffuses into adjacent normal tissues where it changes the structure of the tissue in a way that permits local invasion of the cancer cells. This was backed up by a study where regions of the highest tumor invasion correspond to areas of lowest pH (acidic) and tumor invasion didn’t occur in regions with normal or near-normal extracellular pH.4-7
The lower the pH in tumors—as measured by their lactate levels—the better the prognosis. The more acidic the tumor, the worse the outcome.8-9 Low pH increases the release of the enzyme cathepsin B.10 When cathepsin B goes into overdrive, it can trigger tumor development.
When tumors are more acidic, they can invade and spread throughout the body easier. Angiogenesis—the process by which tumors spawn new blood vessels to ease the cancer’s spread—also increases in an acidic environment, as does the tumor’s ability to be resistant to cancer drugs.11-12
When scientists pretreated tumor cells with acid before injecting them into animals, metastases occurred at a higher rate than in animals injected with tumor cells not pretreated with acid.13-14
In another study, researchers examined whether mildly acidic conditions would influence the invasive potential of two human melanoma cell lines. The scientists found that culturing of either cell line at acidic pH (6.8) dramatically increased both migration and invasion. Cells cultured at acidic pH also were more aggressive than control cells.15
Extracellular lactic acid further encourages the spread of cancer by suppressing the tumor-killing activity of important immune cells such as cytotoxic T-lymphocytes and natural killer cells.16-18
At the same time that an acid environment has accelerated the rate of cancer spreading through the body, creating a more alkaline environment has inhibited the spread of cancer. In mice with experimental breast cancer that were given sodium bicarbonate orally, the growth rate of the primary tumors wasn’t affected, but the pH of tumors increased and the formation of spontaneous metastases decreased.2
The sodium bicarbonate significantly increased the extracellular pH, but not the intracellular pH of tumors. It also reduced the rate of lymph node involvement, although it did not affect the levels of circulating tumor cells. When injected into the animals’ spleens, it prevented breast cancer’s metastasis to the liver.2
When sodium bicarbonate was injected into animals in models of other cancers, it had mixed results. It stopped the formation of prostate cancer metastases, but not that of a line of fast-growing melanoma cells.2
Although there are a lot of cell culture and animal studies, researchers haven’t conducted many human studies looking at how sodium bicarbonate supplementation affects cancer cells. What studies have been done revolved around relieving pain in cancer patients.
In one of these studies, researchers treated 26 terminal cancer patients who no longer had the option of conventional treatment with an intravenous infusion of dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and sodium bicarbonate solution. The patients were in pain due to both the disease progression and complications of chemotherapy and radiation. The study authors found that the combination of DMSO and sodium bicarbonate can be a viable, effective and safe treatment for pain in cancer patients. DMSO/sodium bicarbonate treatment led to better quality of life for patients with nontreatable terminal cancers.19
How Does Acidity Cause Cancer?
Scientists have proposed a number of theories as to how an acidic environment in your body can cause cancer. One theory has to do with the way acidity influences cortisol levels.
When bicarbonate levels in the body are low, cortisol levels increase. High acidity triggers the pituitary-adrenal cortex to release cortisol. Researchers have observed this cortisol increase after healthy adults consumed an acid-generating, high-protein meal. Serum and salivary cortisol increased significantly within hours after the high protein meal, and cortisol levels were dependent on the protein content of the meals.20-21
Cortisol can stimulate tumor growth and high cortisol levels are linked to insulin resistance, which in turn can increase your risk of developing colorectal, pancreatic, endometrial, kidney and breast cancers.22
Another way in which acidity may promote cancer has to do with insulin growth factor-1 (IGF-1). A Westernized diet loaded with protein elevates levels of IGF-1. And when IGF-1 binds with the insulin receptors it stops the cancer cells from dying and encourages them to proliferate. Several studies have linked IGF-1 with different forms of cancer including prostate, colorectal and breast.22
An acid-promoting diet also lowers levels of a hunger-regulating hormone known as adiponectin, whereas the Mediterranean diet, known for high vegetable and fruit intake and low or moderate amounts of meat consumption is associated with high levels of adiponectin. Researchers have linked low serum adiponectin levels to a greater risk of developing cancer. Patients with breast and gastric cancers have reduced serum adiponectin levels. On the other hand, higher adiponectin levels may protect against cancer and have slowed tumor growth in an animal study.22
Finally, a Western diet may produce lactic acid in your cells, which may lead to oxidative stress. When your DNA is damaged by oxidative stress, it’s associated with many forms of cancer including liver, breast and prostate cancer.22
Make No Bones About It
Researchers have linked eating a Western-type diet to osteoporosis. On the opposite end of the spectrum, administering an alkali-type diet to human subjects results in improved bone health.23
Researchers have estimated that the quantity of calcium lost in the urine after eating a modern diet over time could be as high as almost 480 grams over 20 years—or almost half the skeletal mass of calcium.24 However, urinary losses of calcium don’t always correspond directly to osteoporosis.
In one study, researchers neutralized the diet of nine healthy subjects by giving them sodium bicarbonate and potassium bicarbonate. Neutralization for seven days caused the subjects to retain more calcium. They also showed an improvement in bone health markers and reduced cortisol levels.23
Researchers also demonstrated that neutralization of acid production in postmenopausal women resulted in calcium and phosphate retention, reduced markers of bone resorption (the process by which bone cells known as osteoclasts break down bone) and an increase in a marker of bone formation called osteocalcin.25
Other uncontrolled observational studies provided evidence that loss of bone mineral density (BMD) in elderly humans is less while they are ingesting an alkali-rich diet with higher levels of estimated fruit and vegetable intake.23 However, as interesting as these studies are, the researchers didn’t measure acid excretion in the subjects and therefore better studies need to be conducted.
What scientists don’t know for sure, however, is whether it’s the alkalinity itself that improves bone health or whether it’s the increased potassium intake of a diet with more fruits and vegetables. In support of the hypothesis that it’s the potassium that is protecting bone health are studies that have found little effect of sodium bicarbonate and sodium citrate on urinary calcium excretion. On the other hand, in those studies in which scientists administered potassium bicarbonate or potassium citrate, large, significant reductions in urinary calcium excretion occurred.26-27
The other challenge is that when we eat a Westernized diet, the acid load is present for our entire lives. This is in contrast to short-term, one- to three-week studies investigating how neutralizing affects the body short-term.28
As you age, your muscle mass declines. This puts you at risk of falls and fractures. Research is starting to uncover that sending your body into an alkaline state may reduce this decline in muscle mass. One three-year study found that an alkaline diet rich in potassium, including lots of fruits and vegetables, resulted in preserved muscle mass in older men and women.1
There’s more evidence that an acid state is linked to decreasing muscle mass. Conditions such as chronic renal failure that result in chronic metabolic acidosis speed up the breakdown in skeletal muscle.
Making the body more alkaline may preserve muscle mass in conditions where muscle wasting is common such as diabetic ketosis, trauma, sepsis, chronic obstructive lung disease and renal failure. In addition, supplementing younger patients with sodium bicarbonate before exhaustive exercise resulted in significantly less acidosis in the blood than in those who were not supplemented with sodium bicarbonate.1
Acidity, Blood Sugar and Heart Health
Researchers think that abnormalities in intracellular pH regulation may be one of the driving forces behind development of type 2 diabetes and the associated cardiomyopathy and hypertension that diabetes patients often suffer.29
Acidity also can affect the way your blood vessels function. In large arteries, intracellular acidosis is associated with widening of the blood vessels, whereas in small arteries, it leads to narrowing of the blood vessels.30
Beating Back Pain
One study found that chronic low back pain improved in 76 out of 82 patients after supplementation with alkaline minerals. Mean pain scores dropped significantly by 49 percent (from 41 to 21 points) after four weeks’ supplementation. With supplementation, there was a slight but significant increase in blood pH and intracellular magnesium.31
According to the researchers, “The results show that a disturbed acid-base balance may contribute to the symptoms of low back pain. The simple and safe addition of an alkaline multi-mineral preparation was able to reduce the pain symptoms in these patients with chronic low back pain.”
The first step in making your body more alkaline is not to eliminate or sharply decrease protein intake. You need protein to prevent osteoporosis and the loss of skeletal muscle mass known as sarcopenia.1 Eating slightly less protein is okay, but don’t go overboard.
Instead, increase your intake of fruits and vegetables and only indulge in sugar and grains as rare treats. Be certain to have several servings of fruits or vegetables with each meal. Substitute fruits and vegetables for grain-based snacks. Cut back on salt intake, as sodium chloride can trigger metabolic acidosis in a dose-dependent manner.22 Avoiding alcohol, soft drinks, caffeine and all processed foods is another important step and drink plenty of purified water.
Another option? Supplement with magnesium, which has an alkalinizing effect. Aim for 500 mg per day in divided doses. Taking too much magnesium at once can cause diarrhea. Choosing calcium carbonate over calcium citrate also is an important step.
You can also try supplementing with bicarbonate. Potassium bicarbonate may be a better option than sodium bicarbonate, especially in regards to protecting bone health as noted earlier in the article.
For cancer, naturopathic doctors have had success with high doses of sodium bicarbonate (31.75 grams per day) or trisodium citrate (32.5 grams per day)—just keep in mind that this is a source of sodium for those patients on restrictive diets.32 These are equivalent to the doses used in a mouse study of breast cancer.32 Because these high doses can cause nausea and diarrhea, especially if administered all at once, you’re best off putting it in your drinking water and sipping it gradually throughout the day. This should be done under a physician’s guidance.
Alkalinity for Optimal Health
More and more research is suggesting that our bodies are healthiest when they’re in an alkaline state. Taking small steps to make your body more alkaline can reap big rewards.
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- Robey IF, et al. Cancer Res. 2009 March 15;69(6):2260-8.
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- Griffiths JR. Br J Cancer. 1991;64:425-7.
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- Estrella V, et al. Cancer Res. 2013 Mar 1;73(5):1524-35.
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- Brizel DM, et al. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2001;51:349-53.
- Robey IF. Cancer Res. 2009 Mar 15;69(6):2260-8.
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- McCarty MF, et al. Med Hypotheses. 2010;74:789-97.
- Rofstad EK, et al. Cancer Res. 2006;66:6699–707.
- Schlappack OK, et al. Br J Cancer. 1991;64:663-70.
- Martinez-Zaguilán R, et al. Clin Exp Metastasis. 1996 Mar;14(2):176-86.
- Loeffler DA, et al. Int J Cancer. 1991;48:895-9.
- Loeffler DA, et al. Br J Cancer. 1992;66:619-22.
- Lardner A. J Leukoc Biol. 2001;69:522-30.
- J Pain Palliat Care Pharmacother.2011;25(1):19-24.
- Gibson EL, et al. Psychosom Med. 1999;61(2):214-24.
- Slag MF, et al. Metabolism. 1981;30(11):1104-8.
- Robey IF. Nutr Metab (Lond). August 1, 2012;9(1):72. [Epub ahead of print.]
- Maurer M, et al. American Journal of Physiology - Renal Physiology. 2003 Jan;284(1):F32-40.
- Fenton TR, et al. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2008;88(4):1159-66.
- Sebastian A, et al. N Engl J Med. 1994;330:1776-81.
- Lemann J Jr., et al. Kidney Int. 1989;35:688-95.
- Sakhaee K, et al. Kidney Int. 1983;24:348-52.
- Jehle S, et al. JASN. November 2006;17(11);3213-22.
- Yang J, et al. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab.2002 Dec;283(6):E1299-307.
- de Nadai TR, et al. Int J Inflam. 2013; 2013:601424.
- Vormann J, et al. J Trace Elem Med Biol. 2001;15(2-3):179-83.
- McCarty MF and Whitaker J. Altern Med Review. 2010 Sep;15(3):264-72.