This article focuses on a topic that’s rarely addressed in doctors’ offices – acidosis. Acidosis is a condition caused by an acid-alkaline imbalance in the body. That doesn’t sound particularly far-fetched or outrageous, yet some medical authorities claim there is no such thing. Don’t believe it! I’ve been a doctor for nearly 25 years, and acidosis is both real and under-diagnosed. Yet nearly every patient with the condition that I’ve worked with is skeptical about the diagnosis at first, simply because they’ve never heard the term before.
That was the case with Eve, who had been my patient since she was in college. Every time Eve came in for a physical, we had the same discussion. I would tell her that, although she was in good health now, she needed to make some dietary changes, like replacing junk food and microwave meals with real, honest-to-goodness food, particularly fruits and vegetables.
Eve would laugh and reply that since she was healthy, she was going to stay with convenience food. It was fast and easy, it tasted good, and obviously it wasn’t doing her a bit of harm.
No matter how much I argued for eating smarter, Eve ignored the advice. Of course, I’m used to patients who think, “As long as everything’s fine right now, there’s no reason to change.” In fact, that’s true for most people – prevention is a tough sell, especially when everything seems fine.
And it’s not just patients who are difficult to convince. There was such a lack of research on acid-alkaline imbalance that, in the early days, I was forced to find remedies on my own. Fortunately, the subject of excessive acid is taken a little more seriously now. Recent studies are showing that chronic, low-grade acidosis has an impact on everything from children’s growth rates (excess acidity slows the growth process) to decreased bone and muscle mass and the formation of kidney stones in adults. Other research indicates that an acid imbalance may be linked to heart disease and diabetes. Clearly, acidosis is not something to be taken lightly.
Are You on an Acid Trip?
Despite its serious consequences, acidosis is still not on most health experts’ radar. Maybe someday there will be dozens of studies to turn to, but for now, my own results tell me everything I need to know.
One thing I can tell you is that the damage done to your health by acid-producing foods is cumulative. Having bacon and eggs for breakfast occasionally won’t send anyone rushing off to the emergency room. But the non-stop parade of acid-promoting fare morning, noon, and night does take a toll.
Acidosis is unhealthy because it creates an imbalance in the body’s pH levels. Proper pH balance is essential for good health. Ideally, the body’s pH should be slightly alkaline, in the range of 7.2 to 7.4 (just a bit more alkaline than water, which has a neutral pH of 7.0). If measurements show a lower pH, that means you are in a state of acidosis. By contrast, a pH above 7.43 signals excessive alkalinity, or alkalosis, which is rare.
Acidosis can have a significant impact on your health, and especially on the body’s mineral stores. If the pH level drops below 7.2 – even by a very small amount – the body goes to work neutralizing the extra acid. To do that, the body needs alkaline minerals, like calcium, manganese, magnesium, iron, and potassium. The easiest way for the body to access these minerals is through food or supplements we consume. But if it needs more alkaline, it will steal minerals from the bones or the body’s tissues.
Needless to say, acid-forming foods are not necessarily “bad.” Ideally, we should be eating both acidic and alkaline foods. However, intake needs to be balanced. Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet (SAD) is loaded with foods that create acidity, including sugar, salt, coffee, animal products, alcohol, and processed and fast foods. Meanwhile, on the alkaline side, we have vegetables and most fruit – the sort of nutritious whole foods that most people promise to start eating more of tomorrow – but seldom do.
This situation is exactly what happened to Eve. After 15 years of insisting that microwave dinners and two-doughnut breakfasts weren’t causing health problems, Eve appeared in my office looking concerned. She had broken her wrist in a bicycle accident and the bone scan had revealed osteopenia.
Osteopenia is the precursor to osteoporosis, the bone-thinning disease behind so many of the broken hips that complicate life for older individuals. Eve had watched her beloved grandmother grow increasingly frail in a nursing home when a broken hip took months to heal. And she’d also seen her mother suffer from jawbone deterioration after taking a popular osteoporosis drug.
When I explained that excessive acid in her diet could be causing her bones to thin, Eve shook her head. “But I take calcium supplements every day,” she insisted. Then I described how the supplements were probably being used to buffer the acidity, so her bones were being short-changed.
“I’ve never considered acidosis before,” Eve replied. “But if you think it’ll help, just tell me what to do and I’ll do it. I don’t want to go through what my mom and grandma did.”
Eating Low on the Acid Scale
As I told Eve, correcting an acid imbalance is not difficult, and it doesn’t take a long time. It won’t repair existing damage to bones or eliminate any kidney stones that may have already formed, but it will prevent either situation from getting worse. The first thing you need to do, however, is determine your own pH levels, and that requires a simple test. Use litmus paper (available at most pharmacies or medical supply companies). Just follow the directions on the product to check the second urine of the day.
If the test shows excess acid (in other words, if the result is lower than 7.2), the first step in correcting the problem is to make simple dietary changes. You’ll want to eliminate or cut back on foods that promote acidity and increase your intake of fruits and vegetables. Almost all fruits and vegetables (except for tomatoes, cranberries, and blueberries) are alkalizing. Surprisingly, in spite of their citric acid content, most citrus fruits have an alkalinizing effect when consumed, so enjoy lemons, grapefruit, and related fruits (with the exception of oranges) without worrying about contributing to acid levels. In fact, a cup of hot water with a bit of lemon is a soothing afternoon or evening beverage with an acid-reducing bonus.
If adding more vegetables to your diet is difficult right now, consider one of the greens supplements on the market today. These can be an effective solution, especially for people who are just not able to balance their intake of acid-producing food for one reason or another.
A Quick Fix
Like Eve, you may be unhappy about having to give up some of your favorite foods and beverages. But as I explained to her, the change is temporary. After a few days on the low-acid diet, start retesting urine with litmus paper daily to check your pH level. When it reaches a normal range, you can slowly begin eating more protein and flour-based foods, while making sure you’re balancing them with fruits and veggies. Do retest pH levels now and then, and adjust your diet as necessary to maintain a healthy pH.
As I explained to Eve, correcting an acid imbalance is not going to put calcium back in your bones or eliminate kidney stones that have already formed. But it can prevent further damage from occurring. And that’s something that ignoring the situation definitely won’t do!
Also, remember – you don’t have to give up your favorite acid-producing foods completely. The issue is balance. If you’re eating from the list of acidic foods, round out the meal with something from the alkaline side. A number of patients tell me that my recommendation to make a salad first has been very helpful. Since we tend to focus on a meal’s main course, salad is often an afterthought. Reverse the process and put together a stellar salad first, with lots of fresh, mixed greens, assorted vegetables, and a healthy dressing.
I’m happy to report that Eve survived what she called her “ten-day ordeal” of doughnut- and cheeseburger-free living and has learned to love the salad bar instead. “After the first few days of feeling sorry for myself, I discovered that I actually enjoy putting together big salads and experimenting with different greens and vegetables,” she told me during a follow-up visit. “Now, I only eat fast food when there’s absolutely no other choice. And you know what? Once I got away from it, I was surprised that I really didn’t miss it much at all.”
As a doctor, I realize how difficult it is for people to make drastic changes to their diet. But becoming aware of how food affects us is the first step in maintaining or improving health. Often, simple changes – like balancing acid-producing proteins with alkaline veggies, for example – are enough to make a real difference in one’s well being, even for the most skeptical among us.