Restore Your Body’s Health and Build Your Immune System with pH Balance

By Unamarie Clibon, Pharm.D., M.D.
Medical Oncologist, Hemotologist, and Internist

Restore Your Body's Health and Build Your Immune System with pH BalanceOnce, during a Teaching addressing how obsession and habitual energy block health, the Wisdom Master said, “If you keep your pH balanced, you will not get colds or flu. Your health will be good.”

“What does pH balance have to do with flu and general health?”, I thought. In all my pharmacy and medical training, I was never taught there was unbalanced pH in the general public. The Wisdom Master further recommended testing the urine pH in the morning and evening with a goal of 7.2, supplementing with potassium gluconate as needed to keep an alkaline urine pH, and maintaining a healthy vegetarian diet.  This sparked my interest and my research began.

Panel 1

Unbalanced pH

What is unbalanced pH? The basic premise is that our bodies function best with a slightly alkaline pH. The pH scale of 0-14 measures how acid or alkaline a substance is, with 7.0 being neutral. Below 7.0 is acid, and above is alkaline.  Adding an alkaline substance (referred to as a base) to a solution will increase its pH; adding acid to a solution will decrease the pH.  For example, if the urine had a pH of 6.0 (acid range), and we want a solution of 7.2 (alkaline range), we would add an alkaline substance (a base) to the solution to increase the pH.   Also, if the urine had a pH of 7.2 and later was checked and had a pH of 6.0 (a decrease), then we would know an acid had been added to lower the pH.  The pH of blood is optimally 7.35 to 7.45. Eating a food that is metabolized by the body into an acid will decrease the optimal blood pH, meaning the blood will have a lower pH. We refer to this as metabolic acidosis.  However, the body has several systems in place to neutralize the acid so this doesn’t happen. To neutralize the acid means that enough alkaline substance is available to react with the acid so there is no change in the pH. Another word we use for neutralizing an acid is buffering the acid. The systems in the body used to do that are called buffering systems. 

Initially, I remembered seeing some books on pH balance in the bookstore. I had never taken the subject seriously enough to buy the books. Mostly, I thought, “What have they come up with this time as a cure for everything?” But now, spurred on by the Wisdom Master’s comments, I began to read some of those books and research different internet sites.  Most of the books and internet sites asserted that acidosis (decrease in blood pH) results from our diet and went on to describe how to change the diet from acid to alkaline, but scientific documentation was lacking. I knew if pH balance was going to be accepted as important by health professionals and patients, there had to be data from studies, something beyond the sensationalism and testimonials. (For details on unbalanced pH, see panel 1, left)

Home Osteoporosis Treatment

I shifted my focus to research on pH balance and potassium in the medical literature, and found an article by Susan Brown, Ph.D., which presented information on osteoporosis. In this article, Dr. Brown referenced data on diet-induced acidosis that had been neutralized by taking oral potassium bicarbonate (potassium with a base, a negatively charged ion that neutralizes acid). This caused a reversal of the acidosis, which was found to prevent bone mineral loss.  I was astounded!

The Wisdom Master had stated one could keep their pH balanced with potassium gluconate, and here was the data to support it. (Gluconate is a base metabolized by the liver to bicarbonate.) The referenced data was from an article published in 1994 in The New England Journal of Medicine. It discussed the chronic metabolic acidosis induced by the modern western diet and a study showing how the reversal of the acidosis with potassium bicarbonate not only reversed the acidosis but stopped the loss of calcium in the urine. The fact that calcium stopped being lost in the urine is evidence that if there is enough bicarbonate, the second buffering system does not have to be activated. A buffering system  neutralizes acid. (See Panel 2) The study showed that acidosis can contribute to osteoporosis, and treatment (potassium bicarbonate) reversed the calcium loss. This article was published in 1994 by a group from the University of California, San Francisco, a prestigious medical research university. It is now 2008, and the use of an alkaline diet and supplements to reverse acidosis to help prevent and treat osteoporosis is still not a part of the usual recommendation to patients.

Panel 2

Acids, Bases, and Buffering Systems

The body has three major buffering systems:  the bicarbonate buffering system; the base buffers mobilized from bone; and the nitrogen base buffer from muscle breakdown. The first line of defense against acid decreasing pH is the bicarbonate buffering system.  Bicarbonate (HCO3-, a negatively charged ion) is a base that will neutralize acid (H+, a positively charged ion).  When this bicarbonate system is used up, then other sources of base have to be found. This is where the second and third buffer systems come into play. Base substances are mobilized from the bone to buffer acid. Each negatively charged ion (-) in the body has to travel with a positively charged ion (+).  So, when the negatively charged bases are mobilized from the bone to neutralize the positively charged acid, they travel out of the bone with potassium (K+), magnesium (Mg2+) and calcium (Ca2+), positively charged ions.  After the bases leave the bone, they let go of the Ca2+, Mg2+, K+ and join with the H+ (the acid), thus, neutralizing it.  The remaining Ca2+, Mg2+, and K+ are removed from the body through the kidneys into the urine. The essential thing to remember here is that as the bases from bone are mobilized to buffer the acid in the blood, the bone is losing potassium, magnesium and calcium in the urine. This can contribute to osteoporosis, which occurs when the mineral deposits that make up bone are reduced, bone architecture is weakened, and there is increased risk of fractures. The body’s third system of buffering acid is to breakdown muscle protein to a base (NH3) so the kidney can add acid (H+) to it and excrete it as ammonia (NH4+) in the urine. The third system is activated with the second system.

Even though this group was primarily studying calcium loss and osteoporosis, what was important for my research was that the data from their studies was scientific documentation that our diet is usually acidotic. On a daily basis, the bicarbonate buffer system is used up, requiring the buffering system from the bone to be mobilized to neutralize the acid created from the food we eat. Even more exciting was the fact that giving the study participants’ alkaline base, such as potassium bicarbonate, reversed the acidosis of the diet enough that breakdown of bone for bases stopped, and therefore, calcium losses in the urine stopped.  The study group did not have to take extra calcium to reverse the calcium loss, which is one of the treatments for osteoporosis; only the acidosis needed to be treated with a supplemental base, potassium bicarbonate. Approaches to reversing osteoporosis have been limited so far, but few have addressed the reversal of this chronic metabolic acidosis in addition to the accepted treatment. If I had osteoporosis or wanted to prevent it, I would not wait even one more day without addressing the state of my pH balance.

A Root Cause?

If we go through decades of chronic acidosis in our blood, undoubtedly, the health consequences would not be limited to our bones.  I was now quite excited as my research continued. Could this chronic metabolic acidosis from the contemporary Western diet be a root problem to body imbalance?  If it is, then diet changes and supplements to correct the imbalance would be the root treatment, instead of waiting for the imbalances to become disease! Fortunately, we can evaluate ourselves for pH balance and institute changes in diet and supplements to achieve balanced pH without prescription medications.

I read many subsequent articles; all published in reputable peer review journals by the group at the University of California and others. However, it seemed the data was being ignored. I attended 2 national nutrition courses by reputable faculty in 2004 and 2005, and the state of a chronic metabolic acidosis from diet and subsequent use of an alkaline diet and its benefits were not discussed.  Since 1994, there have been several other articles introducing data that link chronic metabolic acidosis to the dysfunction of other body organs in addition to the detrimental effects on the bones.

The third buffering system (see Panel 2 above right) involves muscle protein breakdown for nitrogen (NH3) to be used by the kidneys to excrete acid as ammonia (NH4+). This daily breakdown of muscle to buffer our acid diet causes weakness and fatigue. Since many have lived decades with this chronic metabolic acidosis, it is now considered to be a cause of the loss of muscle mass that occurs with aging.

In addition, I was taught in medical school that the loss of kidney function is inevitable with aging, but now the group at UCSF has data that this loss of kidney function with ‘aging’ may in fact be due to decades of untreated chronic metabolic acidosis caused by our diet. I always wondered why a decrease in kidney function was considered inevitable. I suspect there are other ideas taught in medicine about the ‘inevitable’ which are not true.

Restore Growth Hormone Even with Aging

Another effect of acidosis is decreased growth hormone.  Growth hormone is secreted by the pituitary gland and regulates growth.  We know that in children with a disease called renal tubular acidosis (a genetic disorder that produces acidosis, decreasing blood pH) there is growth retardation, because the acidosis causes a decrease in growth hormone secretion.  One only has to treat the acidosis, and it reverses the problem—growth hormone returns to normal and growth normalizes.  No extra growth hormone has to be given. Many researchers have correlated decreases in growth hormone levels with aging.  The study groups at UCSF raise the question that this may all be due to decades of the diet-induced chronic metabolic acidosis.  Is it possible that the ‘inevitable’ decrease in growth hormone is not natural with aging, but due to diet? This could have huge significance. It needs more study, but while those studies are being done, it seems wise to address one’s pH balance now. 

Optimize Immune Function

Finally, there is data that show even a 0.1 change in pH of the blood (that would be 7.45 to 7.35—the range considered normal) can alter the function of certain cells of the immune system, which is important for prevention of infections and some cancers. In addition, acidosis can cause damage to the mitochondria, the power house of the cell, and this also results in decreased immune function.  Here at the HÜMÜH Monastery, those who maintain pH balance do not get colds or flu, even though there are many visitors and retreatants throughout the year.

Consequences of Unbalanced pH

  1. Loss of bone minerals

  2. Muscle protein breakdown

  3. Kidney damages with ‘aging’

  4. Growth hormone secretion decreased

  5. Immune system suppression

Take Control of Your Body

So how does one check pH balance?  Checking the pH of blood requires a special blood draw and lab equipment, and therefore is not practical for frequent measurements. The alternatives are to check the pH of urine or saliva. pH paper is readily available in pharmacies and health food stores.  There is more data on checking urine pH, and it may be more convenient since checking saliva pH requires timing. Checking urine pH is not reflective of the actual pH of blood, but it is reflective of how much acid the body needs to excrete from diet and metabolism. For example, if the urine pH is 6.0 or less, the urine has significant acid. In the studies on oral potassium bicarbonate at 3 different dose levels per day, urine pH ranged from 6.9 to 7.2.  So supplementation allowed a urine pH to be about neutral or slightly above. (See Panel 1 above) Therefore, the potassium bicarbonate supplement assisted in buffering the acid from the diet, so the other buffering systems did not have to be activated.

The first way to assist with decreasing body acidity is to decrease the acid input from diet by eating more alkaline foods. There are many tables on the internet and in books on acidic and alkaline foods, however, they don’t always agree. The recommendation for 80% alkaline food and 20% acidic is difficult to obtain for most people, and also leaves out many whole foods that have significant nutritional value for essential fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins. An approach that is more achievable for many people is to eat a balanced, anti-inflammatory, whole-food diet, which increases the amount of vegetables and fruit servings that we eat, utilizes whole grains, and limits or eliminates both animal protein and processed food. In addition, people should drink 2-3 liters of water each day. Water that is slightly alkaline is best. There are many web sites that explain an anti-inflammatory diet; I’d recommend starting with Dr. A Weil’s web site discussion. Read about it and see how many of the changes to an anti-inflammatory diet are also changes to an alkaline diet and decide for yourself. If after diet changes are made, the urine testing still shows acid, supplements that increase the alkaline buffer for the blood can be added.

Choose a Supplement and Use It

pH ScaleThe choices for supplements are many, but only a few have been studied. One that has is potassium along with a base such as bicarbonate, which is what was used in some of the studies. The bases that are available with potassium include bicarbonate, which can be used as a buffer immediately, and others, such as gluconate and citrate that are changed to bicarbonate by the liver. It is important to note that supplementing with potassium chloride (K+ Cl-) would not be helpful because the chloride, even though a negative ion, is not able to act as a base to buffer acid. Bicarbonate is also available with sodium, instead of potassium, as baking soda, but is generally not recommended because of the sodium content. Sodium salts can cause fluid retention and elevate blood pressure, and should not be used if you have high blood pressure or cardiac disease. Additionally, sodium does not replace the potassium that has been lost from the bone breakdown. Therefore, starting with an alkaline supplement that contains potassium is the first choice. There are many products available. The only way to evaluate them is to look at the amount of potassium. The base will be an equivalent amount.  It is more difficult to compare products if you choose a combination. There are many websites that advertise their particular alkaline supplement, but whichever you choose, check the urine pH 30-90 minutes after taking it to measure its effectiveness. Also check it several times during the day until the changes in diet, dose, and frequency of the supplement are stable. Many products limit the amount of potassium to 99 mg. Depending on your diet, you may need to supplement with many tablets a day for a balanced pH. Potassium gluconate is also available as a powder that can be mixed with water and taken in larger doses. There will be individual variations; the only way to know what is right for you is to measure the response. The goal is to have a urine pH of 6.8 in the morning and 7.0-7.2 throughout the day.

Once one knows of this diet-induced chronic metabolic acidosis, disease associations and treatment is looked at in a different way.  Since the systems of the body work in concert with each other, I suspect there are many other organ effects of chronic metabolic acidosis that have not yet been detailed. However, this is an aspect of your health that you can address now. The Wisdom Master has said, “Your body is a vehicle to live life and develop spiritually.  It can only serve you as…you take care of it.  You are responsible for your health, take control of your body.”

Comments and questions welcomed. References upon request.

Disclaimer: This article contains information not evaluated by the FDA. It is not meant to diagnose, treat or prevent any specific disease, or substitute for the advice and care of your health care practitioner.

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