“The coordinated physiological processes which maintain most of the steady states in the organism are so complex and so peculiar to living beings… that I have suggested a special designation for these states, homeostasis.” — Walter B. Cannon 1932
I recently ran across an ad for alkaline water in a local neighborhood newspaper. The ad promised that alkaline water would help fight asthma, help heal wounds, control blood pressure, help one’s colon and normalize blood pressure! Similar claims have been made about so-called alkaline foods, too. This ad reminded me of the type of promises the patent medicine men made in the Old West.
However, the alkaline claims have never been proven and no serious studies are ever cited to support the promises stated in the ads.
In fact, alkaline products are based on a false attempt to control the acid levels in our bodies.
What does alkaline actually mean? (It does not refer to Al Kaline, the famous Detroit Tiger All-Star baseball player.)
Alkaline is another name for base. You may vaguely remember acids and bases from high school chemistry class.
Acids are substances that release hydrogen ions. Some acids are strong acids. This means that these acids release large amounts of hydrogen ions. For example, the acid in our stomach, hydrochloric acid is a strong acid.
A base is a substance that reacts with an acid and removes the hydrogen ion from solution. For example, when the base hydroxide reacts with a hydrogen ion, water is formed.
The various cellular and physiologic functions (homeostasis) of our bodies are greatly affected by the acid levels of our internal milieu.
The way scientists and physicians measure the acid level in our bodies is called pH. Our bodies function within a very tight pH range. The normal value of the body’s pH level is 7.4. The lower limit (the most acidic level) that the human body can function is 6.8. The upper limit (the most base or alkaline level is 8.0). These extremes are only tolerated by the body for a very short time.
How are acids and bases regulated in our bodies?
The regulation of the acid and base levels in our bodies is part of an intricate and marvelous self-regulating system that involves our lungs, kidneys and blood serum. These components of our bodies are constantly sensing and adjusting themselves to maintain a normal pH level throughout our entire lives.
The body is going to maintain a physiologic pH level no matter which alkaline foods or which alkaline water are consumed. Of course, if one consumes bleach (a strong alkaline product) or a strong industrial acid there is nothing the body can do to adjust itself to such a toxic insult.
What should we eat and drink to help our bodies remain healthy?
I recommend a plant-based or Mediterranean diet that has a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and moderate water consumption. And, as I wrote in a previous column, a little wine.
As, I tell my patients if a product featured in ad promises to cure every ailment, if it sounds to good to be true…
Dr. Alan Jackson is a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at the Rush Medical Center. He also is a member of the Sun-Times board of directors.