From juice detoxes to SoulCycle, there’s always some transformative cure-all making the rounds. Recently, the benefits of alkaline water and a veggie-rich alkaline diet have been in the news, finding support from the notably not-so-scientific likes of Dr. Oz. Proponents of alkaline water — that is, water that possesses a higher, less-acidic pH thanks to having fewer hydrogen ions — claim the stuff can do anything from preventing cancer and fighting off illness to simply increasing energy, all by altering the pH of the drinker's body. But the scientific community is fighting back by insisting that, like most cure-alls, alkaline water actually cures nothing.
The benefits of an alkaline diet, including drinking alkaline water — either purchased in bottled form or made at home with a $2,000-$6,000 ionizer — derive from alkaline foods' supposed ability to help the body deal with our “extra-acidic” lifestyle. It’s a neat, appealing solution to a much greater problem. So many of the worst foods Americans eat — such as canned foods, greasy meats, and soda — are acidic. So wouldn’t it be convenient if an alkaline diet could easily undo that harm?
Or, as a video for alkaline water company Qure Water puts it: "Our cells are dependent on the cleanliness and proper pH of our internal fluids to be healthy... However, in today's society, we consume so many acidic, processed foods and beverages that tax our bodies, giving us an over-acidic internal environment." The solution? Righting the acid-base balance by adding some alkaline water.
But when people talk about trying to balance our bodies' pH, they're usually talking about the pH of our blood, which typically exists in the slightly alkaline range of 7.35 to 7.45 — without ever going too much higher or lower. "If it does go too much above or below that, you die," says Charles Mueller, PhD, RDN, clinical associate professor of nutrition at New York University. He emphasises that if your blood pH is abnormally high or low, your first clue will be passing out.
If your blood pH is abnormally high or low, your first clue will be passing out.
And this does happen, albeit rarely. For instance, diabetics can develop diabetic ketoacidosis, a serious issue in which their bodily fluids become too acidic. But even in this situation, their pH imbalance is a symptom of a much larger problem that can't be corrected by simply drinking some alkaline water. The human body, when healthy, does a really good job of regulating the blood’s pH. So, by and large, it’s not something you need to worry about. Even if you wanted to change your blood’s pH, eating or drinking something alkaline isn't likely to accomplish that. This is because your body already has specific pH ranges in the different organs that aid in digestion. "The pH in your stomach is so acidic that it completely obliterates anything that you’ve had to drink or eat," says Dr. Mueller. (Human stomach acid exists in the bitingly acidic 1.5 to 3.5 range.) "Conversely,” he continues, “when the food moves into your small bowel, bicarbonate obliterates the acidic nature of the contents coming out of your stomach."
In fact, it’s not until the digested food passes through the various parts of your intestines that its nutrients even have contact with the bloodstream — only after whatever you’ve ingested has already moved from the very acidic environment of your stomach to the very alkaline environment of your small bowel, in which that bicarbonate buffer makes sure nothing acidic disrupts the delicate pH of the bloodstream. Which means that "nothing you eat controls the pH of your blood," says Dr. Mueller. "Not remotely." Instead, he explains, your blood's pH is maintained internally through this complex metabolic system that includes your lungs, kidneys, and the buffer of your intestines. So if alkaline water isn’t affecting the pH of the blood, could something else be responsible for the beverage's supposedly miraculous properties? For Essentia Water, the central claim is that alkaline water is far "more hydrating" than regular-old bottled water. This is based on research led by Ralph Holsworth, DO, Essentia’s director of clinical and scientific research. In a 2013 pilot study, his team looked at the effects of dehydration on nine firefighters during a mock-emergency situation. Then, in a currently unpublished double-blind follow-up, the team claims to have found that Essentia reduced blood viscosity (thickness and stickiness) by 88% more than another bottled water.
Nothing you eat controls the pH of your blood.
Dr. Holsworth says he's been using alkaline water in his private practice since 1998. He claims it’s helped his patients deal with the symptoms of kidney stones, chronic pain, and fibromyalgia; he believes this is due to alkaline water's effects on blood viscosity, a potential risk factor for heart disease that's affected by dehydration.
Essentia’s vice president, Neil Kimberley, has yet another theory as to how the water gets so freakin’ hydrating — it’s via the ionic separation process, which uses an electric current to separate out the acidic and alkaline ions created by adding electrolytic minerals (like calcium and potassium) to normal water. "The benefit you feel is from [this] ionization," Kimberley says. Dr. Holsworth adds that this process makes Essentia “more biologically active” — a term normally used to describe the degree to which the body is able to digest and actually use a drug.
The most efficient absorption of water, explains Dr. Mueller, happens when you’ve got a mix of electrolytes, simple sugars, and, of course, water. Essentia, like Gatorade and Pedialyte, does contain electrolytes under the guise of helping this process, but Dr. Mueller says this would really only be important in extreme cases. If we eat regularly, electrolytes and simple sugars digested from carbs are usually hanging around in our guts anyways. Even most athletes would be fine with plain-old water as long as they’ve eaten within a few hours, he says.
In the past few years, though, electrolyzed water has had another hype-life — this time as a simple, natural cleaning product. By adding some chlorine or sodium ions (in the form of table salt) to that ionizing reaction, people realized they could create a disinfecting or degreasing spray. Although it’s been used for decades in Japan, like alkaline water, electrolyzed cleaning water has yet to fully catch on outside Asia.
Even most athletes would be fine with plain-old water as long as they’ve eaten within a few hours.
There is one thing that alkaline water might actually “cure” — or at least temporarily soothe — though more research is clearly needed. Thomas Ventura, president of Qure, says he began drinking the stuff seven years ago and started Qure two years later. Because his stomach reacts sensitively to more acidic drinks, like coffee, he explains that alkaline water can have a soothing effect. "If I’m gonna hydrate with something," he says, "I might as well hydrate with something that’s going to make my stomach feel better."
While there is some preliminary lab evidence to suggest alkaline water can neutralise the major reflux-causing enzyme, there haven’t been any large-scale studies in people to confirm this. So, Dr. Mueller says you should still stick with traditional antacids and acid-reducing advice (e.g. no alcohol or coffee).
Drinking water and eating fruits and veggies are definitely good things, but not for pH-related reasons. Other than that, your body's already doing all the work. And if you're not dead yet, it's doing a great job. Despite what the Drs. Oz of the world would have you believe, your body is usually too complicated for cure-all solutions this simple — and it has this job under control.