Digestion & GI health
The truth about pH balance
Think fast: What’s your pH?
If you are like a lot of my patients, you might be familiar with the term “pH”
from biology class or a skin cleanser commercial. And the idea of balancing your
inner pH has become trendy these days, being featured in magazines and spawning
an assortment of products in health food stores. But beneath the “trendiness”
lies an important concern: the fact that the diet of most Americans is overloaded
with foods that are acid-forming — that tip the body’s pH toward
acidity. And while our bodies are equipped to counterbalance a certain amount of
acidity, what we’re seeing is that the standard American diet overwhelms our
ability to buffer the acids in our diets — particularly when other acid-promoting
factors such as stress enter the picture.
When they learn about the pH trend, my patients often ask, “When it comes
to health, what role does pH really play?” Some proponents would have you
believe that balancing your pH will cure all health woes. While pH is one of many
factors I look at when considering a woman’s health, I never consider it in
isolation. That would be too simplistic an approach, and would fail to take into
account the complex role pH plays in our physiology. That said, it is an essential
factor in our overall health equation, so let’s take a look at how pH imbalance
affects us — and what we can do to correct it.
Understanding the pH scale
The derivation of the “pH” is variously traced to terms meaning potential
for hydrogen or hydrogen power.
The pH scale measures acidity in terms of hydrogen ion (H+) activity in a solution.
A solution is acidic when it has more free hydrogen activity, and alkaline when
there is a lack of free hydrogen activity.
The lower the pH reading, the more acidic the solution. Readings from 0–7 are considered
acidic, and numbers from 7.0–14 are considered basic, or alkaline. Pure water, in
the very middle of the (logarithmic) pH scale, has a pH of 7.0, which is considered
Body pH balance
In terms of body pH balance, there is no one “correct” reading for the
entire body. For instance, healthy human skin has an approximate pH of 5.5 (slightly
acidic). Saliva, on the other hand, has a pH of around 6.5–7.4 (teetering on either
side of neutral). Your digestive tract’s pH can range from 1.5 to 7.0, depending
on what stage of digestion is underway. And when the body is in good working order,
human blood reveals a narrow pH window of about 7.35–7.45 (slightly alkaline). Other
parts of a healthy, well-functioning body will show still other pH readings.
Why is this? It’s all part of the same body, so why wouldn’t a person’s
acid–alkaline balance be the same all over? Because different parts of our bodies
serve different purposes. Each of these purposes and their related processes requires
a particular acid–alkaline environment for optimum function.
Skin needs to be slightly acidic in order to deal with environmental factors like
bacteria and other toxins. Likewise, the vagina maintains an acidic environment
to protect itself, and when the pH is raised too high, infections like bacterial
vaginosis and yeast infections can result. The stomach and other parts of the digestive
system are highly acidic out of biological necessity. The digestive acids are part
of how we process and use the foods we eat as fuel. They are part of our internal
combustion for nutrition.
Part of the confusion over body pH arises from the close-to-neutral pH balance of
our blood, saliva, and urine — substances we can test easily. This has led
to the mistaken belief that pH levels are static throughout the body, when in fact
they are not. Eating more
alkalizing foods (such as leafy greens and dried fruits) can help balance
and maintain the pH level of your body and ultimately promote better well-being,
but this doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it also doesn’t happen overnight.
Along with a diet rich in alkalizing plant foods, it takes time and commitment to
certain lifestyle changes, including exercise and regular detoxification. It also
takes knowing whether or not your pH is truly off-balance.
Enthusiasts of the “pH miracle” say that simply living in the modern
world — with its reliance on refined grains and sugars, corn-fed beef, and
unhealthy fats — means we are all overly acidic. To rectify this, we should
focus all our attention on restoring “healthy pH,” by which they mean
a blood pH of 7.35–7.45. I fully agree that most people could benefit by addressing
their acid–base balance, but before anyone begins megadosing on supplements or downing
gallons of “green” water, they need to define their individual needs.
(Remember, the key to pH is balance!) And the best way to do this? Test your pH.
Testing your pH
Physicians use esophageal and gastric pH meters to help identify the causes of heartburn
and gastroesophageal reflux disorder
(GERD). Such tests determine the amount of acid in the environment being tested.
Similarly, you can test the pH of your saliva and/or your urine with simple litmus
strips, which are available in most pharmacies. (You can also use our
pH Test Kit.) Keep in mind that in order to get the full picture of your
body’s pH, you’ll need to carry out the test not just on one day, but
daily for a period of time.
Tracking your urine or salivary pH over the course of a week or so will provide
a window into what is going on in your internal world. A diet that lacks essential
vitamins and nutrients and is high in acid–forming foods will show up in acidic
urine. This is a good indicator that your body is struggling to maintain an optimal
digestive environment (also affected by your
intestinal flora and immune system), which could be contributing to systemic
inflammation — that ubiquitous bugaboo at the root of so many chronic health
concerns, including osteoporosis,
heart disease, and
If conditions of hyperacidity and inflammation are occurring in your body, the next
step is to take a look at the source of the acidity — and food is the first
place to start. Imbalanced pH is primarily a product of what you eat — although
this might not mean what you think it does.
You may think it’s acid — but it’s not
Considering whether a food is acidifying or alkalizing in the diet can require some
mind-bending, because some foods that we think of as “acidic” are, in
fact, alkalizing in the diet. It’s actually better to look at whether the
food is acid–forming or alkaline–forming, not where the food itself
falls on the pH scale. So even though we think of citrus as acidic, fruits like
lemons and tangerines are alkalizing because when they’re consumed, they break
down and donate alkaline mineral salt compounds like citrates and ascorbates.
Similarly, foods we might normally think of as meek and mild in nature are acid-forming
when ingested. Grains and milk are two examples. What’s important is not so
much the pH of the food as it goes into our bodies, but the resultant pH once the
food is broken down — and this is dictated by the residues the broken-down
nutrients leave behind, particularly sulfates and phosphates.
But this isn’t the sort of association most of us can readily make, so we
have compiled a list of common
acidic and alkalizing foods to guide you. But why is it important to have
a certain acid–alkaline balance in our diets? The answer has to do with the dance
that occurs between acid and alkaline elements in our digestion.
Digestive enzymes, microbes, nutrients, and pH balance
As mentioned earlier, pH within the digestive tract isn’t a constant, and
in each zone of increasing acidity, there are different
digestive enzymes and beneficial
microbes present. In the mouth, where the process begins, the pH is
only mildly acidic, and the enzyme amylase is present. Amylase, responsible
for breaking down starch, works in a fairly neutral environment, so when the pH
falls below 6.5 it is no longer active.
Acid isn’t all bad...
The acidic environment of the stomach is not only necessary for processing food,
but it also helps to protect your body from
pathogenic organisms or food antigens that shouldn’t be there.
Interestingly, many people with acid reflux and
heartburn — a condition conventional medicine blames on acid-containing
foods like fruits and vegetables — actually have too little acid
in their stomachs, a problem that’s compounded by medications like Pepcid
and TUMS that increase alkalinity in the stomach.
In my experience, many of my patients get rid of their heartburn and acid reflux
by adding more acid to their diets. (For more on this, please see our article on
the link between IBS, acid reflux, and
As food makes its way from your mouth to your stomach, the digestive tract becomes
more acidic. Pepsin, the enzyme responsible for protein breakdown, needs
an acidic environment and therefore gets released into the stomach, where pH is
very low (about 2.0–1.5). Your small intestine is where most of the nutrients in
your food get absorbed, and where the pH increases from 2.0 to 6.5 as the food travels
from the stomach to the small and large intestines.
Protein — particularly in the form of red meats — requires huge amounts
of alkaline minerals for complete digestive processing. When the system goes looking
for the alkalinity needed to offset the acid load, it looks first to the minerals
currently in the digestive tract. If it fails to find alkaline nourishment there,
it draws on the calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium minerals stored in
This is where the
good greens and essential vitamins and minerals come in. When we eat a diet
that is rich in nutrients, there’s no need to draw on the stored minerals
in the bones. It’s when we don’t consume a nutrient-rich diet —
or, worse, when we overconsume foods that promote acidity in the body — that
we start tapping our bone resources. In the short term, this isn’t an issue,
but in the long run, it can have serious consequences, not just for our bone health
but for our overall health.
pH and disease
It make sense, given that the bones are the storehouse for alkalizing minerals,
that when the body has to drain the stores to offset acid overload in the digestive
tract, the net result can be loss of bone density, which can lead to osteopenia
and ultimately osteoporosis.
We talk about this at length in our bone health section.
But bone loss is not the only health issue that stems from overdrawing our account
at the bones mineral bank.
As I mentioned earlier, when your body struggles to maintain the relatively tight
blood pH required for survival, it can result in inflammation. Over time, this struggle
may be mirrored by a steady rise of the pro-inflammatory blood acid homocysteine
in your blood. Studies show that high levels of homocysteine in the blood double
the risk of osteoporosis–related fractures, along with other inflammatory conditions
like heart attack, stroke, fuzzy thinking,
and Alzheimer’s disease. A
recent report published in the New England Journal of Medicine explains
how elevated homocysteine levels inhibit new bone formation by interrupting the
cross-linking of collagen fibers in bone tissue. (See our article on
acid-alkaline balance for bones for more info.)
Homocysteine levels can be stabilized by eating foods and taking a vitamin supplement
rich in folic acid, B12, and B6. Some researchers also describe a beneficial synergistic
effect on homocysteine levels between omega–3 fatty acids and the metabolism of
Be aware that a minority of the population cannot convert folic acid due to certain
enzyme deficiencies. If your homocysteine levels remain high even after a few weeks
of B supplementation, you may want to ask your practitioner about adding a more
bioavailable form of folate called 5-methyl-tetrahydrofolate (MTHFT) to
Naturally improving your pH balance
Proponents of alkaline diets sometimes talk as though eating alkaline is the only
step to good health. It’s true that our bodies know intuitively where balance
lies, and they can maintain balance on their own if provided what they need through
healthy diet and nutritional supplements. But it’s important to understand
that you can’t simply load up on
alkalizing foods and supplements and presume they’ll offset any amount
of acid you consume or create. To restore pH balance, you must address other sources
of metabolic acidity as well, because in most situations, no amount of alkalizing
can balance a toxically acidic environment. And to cap it off, detoxification takes
place more slowly in an overly acidic environment.
Here are some ideas on how to restore pH balance to your diet, support healthy digestion,
keep blood pH levels on track, and protect your bones and kidneys, too.
- Take a high-quality daily multivitamin like the one we offer through our Personal
Program. This will offset any nutritional gaps and insure that your body has the
reserves it needs. Your supplement should contain essential vitamins and
minerals, including calcium and magnesium in their most bioavailable, alkalizing
forms. In addition, I recommend an essential fatty acid supplement and a top-quality
probiotic, to help the body absorb the minerals that are all-important to your bones.
- Fill your plate with fresh vegetables, particularly the dark green leafy kind. Add
fresh lemon or lime juice to foods and beverages as a highly alkalizing flavor accent.
Enjoy plenty of fruit, especially fruit with
a low glycemic index. (Women in perimenopause and menopause, particularly,
benefit more from fruits that are lower in sugars, to avoid concerns about insulin
resistance.) Again, foods that are fresh, organic, and deeply pigmented or brightly
colored are the kinds that benefit you the most!
- Choose root vegetables, too, as excellent sources of alkalizing mineral compounds.
Eating foods such as slow-roasted sweet potatoes, onions, and leeks, which are also
high in inulin, can optimize your body’s ability to fully absorb the calcium
present in your food and thereby decrease your risk for osteoporosis. Inulin
is a type of prebiotic — it is believed to serve as a welcoming “fuel”
for friendly gut flora, paving the way for beneficial bacteria to thrive further
down into the colon, where it lowers the pH and improves the solubility and absorption
of calcium by the body.
- Consider boosting your diet with “green foods” or “green drinks,”
which contain the pigment chlorophyll in abundance. The plant world’s
equivalent of the hemoglobin in our blood, we can thank chlorophyll as the original
source of all our food (except perhaps fungi!). It works in the body as a strong
detoxifier and immunity–building agent. Foods that contain high levels of chlorophyll
include the algae Spirulina and Chlorella and the juice of wheat
grass and other sprouted grains. These foods offer high levels of other micronutrients
as well, and their neat packaging can be especially helpful for those who lack time
to prepare whole balanced meals or people recovering from illness.
- Eat plenty of vegetable protein, watch your red meat intake, and keep your servings
of the acidifying
animal proteins down to four ounces per meal (the size of a deck of cards).
- Avoid refined carbohydrates whenever you can, including sugar, and when you include
grains, be sure to emphasize the “whole” in whole grains. Eliminate
all processed foods, particularly those that contain partially hydrogenated oils
- Clear the digestive slate with a gentle detox plan, like our
Digestive Reset Program, to get a better reading on how your diet — and
pH — are affecting your sense of well-being. You may be surprised at how well
- If you suffer from IBS, acid reflux, or regular heartburn, consider testing your
pH. Remember that you may have too little acid in your stomach, not too much. Don’t
just assume that an acid stomach means you’re too acidic.
- Chew your food slowly and thoroughly. Enjoy every bite!
The beauty of balance
The subject of body pH may be having its 15 minutes of fame — but if it helps
you to tune in to what’s going on in your body and eat a healthier diet, I’m
all for that. Indeed, there are some people whose pH levels warrant attention —
but you won’t know until you test your pH, and you may need a good functional
medicine practitioner to guide you. Even so, pH is only one, albeit fundamental
piece of the puzzle. To my mind, pH is a helpful indicator of overall balance in
the body. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg, and no amount of trendy drinks
or diet plans will make it more than that.
That being said, paying attention to your pH is one place you can begin to make
an immediate positive change to preserve your long-term health. If it feels like
a good place for you to start taking better care of yourself, I encourage you to
do so. From there, it’s my hope that you will continue to listen to your body
and help it find balance on all fronts, including your hormones, your emotions,
and your lifestyle.
Related to this article:
References & further reading on pH balance
Last Modified Date: 05/09/2011
Principal Author: Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP