pH: The Real Deal

Health professionals and lay people alike are often told that alkaline is better and that more is merrier:

  1. The best diet is alkaline.
  2. Your body needs to be alkaline.
  3. Cancer is acidic, treat it with alkalinity.
  4. Americans are acidic and this causes their degenerative illnesses.
  5. The “alkaline way” is the path to health.

Technically, none of this is true. That makes it dangerous.

But practically, it’s true enough to not only perpetuate the message, but to resolve the majority of complaints that “acidic” people have. Most of the time, it’s beneficial advice despite the flaws.

But look out if you have autoimmune disease, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivities, hypothyroidism, and/or heavy metal poisoning. Alkalinity can be your friend or your nemesis.

The pH “real deal” is that both alkalinity and acidity are necessary and essential aspects of health and wellbeing. In health, they are “balanced” against each other. What makes it tricky is that the balance between alkaline and acidic processes is dynamic, not static. So an alkaline influence at one time of the day can be beneficial and the same alkaline influence at another time of the day can be harmful.

Experientially, this can be seen by the “ideal” breakfast. For people with a phase-advanced acid-alkaline rhythm, they wake up with acidic momentum and an alkaline-forming breakfast with lots of fruit is very stabilizing. But for people with a phase-retarded acid-alkaline rhythm, fruit for breakfast will ruin their entire day. They need to eat an acidifying breakfast to “accelerate” their retarded acid-generating metabolic mechanisms. That means grains, coconut oil, bacon-and-eggs, fried potatoes, butter. These fat-containing foods promote cellular acidity, which will–later in the day–be healthfully balanced by alkaline salads and vegetables.

Who in the alkaline-is-best crowd is going to tell you to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast? Yet our recent ancestors ate that kind of breakfast without experiencing the epidemic of degenerative diseases we see today. Although it is politically correct in this day and age to blame the animal products, this is a fad that does not withstand close scrutiny. I’m not going to change the subject of this blog and address the scientific frauds here. Instead, let me point out that 1) the animal-product foods have changed for the worse in recent decades, and 2) the chronic inflammation that is the bigger adverse influence on our health is made far worse by eating grains than it is by eating meat. And the truth of the matter is that some of your diet has to be acid-forming to be balanced, so the choice is between grains and meat.  In my opinion, grains lose.  Big time.

Now that the pH problem has been briefly presented in experiential and empirical form, let me take it down into the metabolic realm. At this level, acid-generating systems and alkaline-generating systems are fairly distinct.  The primary acid generating system is energy metabolism.  It comes in two parts.  The anaerobic energy generating system uses glucose to generate NADH and ATP, and generates lactic acid as the acidifying infleunce.  And the aerobic energy system uses either glucose of fat to generate NADH and ATP.  But instead of generating lactic acid, it generates carbon dioxide (CO2).  CO2 is also known as carbonic acid.

The difference between lactic acid and CO2 is the difference between unhealthy acid and healthy acid.  Lactic acid is the byproduct of inefficient energy metabolism, and it accumulates in tissues.  The muscle “burn” from over-exercise is from lactic acid accumulation.  The “acidic” type mentioned by eastern healers is from lactic acid accumulation in tissues.  But carbon dioxide is an entirely different acidic influence.  It does not accumulate in tissues.  If flows through the tissues into the blood stream, and then out through the lungs.  CO2 is the byproduct of efficient energy production.

Is your energy metabolism efficient, or inefficient?  That is the first question.

And is your energy metabolism robust or weak?  That is the second question.

If your energy systems are weak or inefficient because of an overly-acidic diet, then you will probably love an alkaline diet.  The increased alkaline influence will be balanced by a shift to more efficiency or greater flux in your energy systems.  You’ll feel increased strength, greater stamina, and improved wellbeing.  This is why the alkaline way is so popular.  And this is the natural birthright of free-living humans in a wild environment.  They maintain an optimum pH balance between their natural alkalinizing diet and their robust acid-generating energy systems.

People with healthy acid-alkaline balance will show a pH rhythm.   During the day, their energy systems are dominant and their urine shows an excess of acid (pH 5).  During the night, when they sleep, their energy systems go into a mild “hibernation” state and their healing systems are dominant.  Their urine pH swings alkaline (pH 7).  This two-full-pH-unit circadian rhythm of urine pH is a fundamental aspect of health and wellbeing.  You can study it in yourself with nitrazene pH test papers, which change from yellow (4.5) to green (6.0) to blue (7.5).

One of the reasons that I mention this in such detail is that too many pH experts make the mistake of trying to rely upon a single urine or saliva pH reading to judge optimum diet.  Since pH is a rhythm, people whose rhythms are merely delayed or accelerated can show pH readings that are indistinguishable from people with deep pathologies.  Delayed pH rhythms (“night owl” types) and phase-advanced rhythms (morning “larks”) are not nearly as serious as “damped” pH patterns (0.5-1.0 peak-to-trough),  base-line shifted pH patterns (oscillating above or below the “average” 6.0-6.2 pH range) and fixed-acid patterns (a sign of chronic inflammation).

The real-deal pH art accommodates a layered-systems model.  The body is like an onion, each layer of which has its own pH-regulatory systems, its own pH readings, its own pH balance, and its own responsibility to defend the pH of underlying systems.  So the kidneys defend the stability of blood pH, the blood defends the tissue pH, the tissues defend cellular pH and the cell defends its organelles (the mitochondria and nuclear pH compartments).  Layers within layers.  With this model, one can never be simply “acidic” or “alkaline.”

Since this blog is a direct response to a question by a member of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals on their linked-in discussion group, I’ll finish by taking this back to the “2-4 PM energy crash” topic.

There are two pH patterns that manifest.

The first is the phase-delayed pattern, by which people are known as night-owl types.  These people have a slump 12 hours opposite their sleep nadir, most commonly in the late afternoon (3-5 PM).  This is rarely connected directly to eating, but does respond to such things as 1) eating coconut oil during lunch, 2) not eating fruit or sugar for breakfast, and/or 3) taking mitochondrial nutrients with lunch (carnitine, B-complex vitamins, lipoic acid, co-Q10), or MCT oil.

The second is the alkaline-stressed blood syndrome, which manifests in proportion to the size of meals and the protein content of meals.   Decreasing the size of lunch and/or reducing the protein content of lunch will decrease the “alkaline tide of digestion” which is the proximal cause of the sleepiness, brain fog, sweet tooth or fatigue.

Moving lunchtime shifts the sleepiness from the alkaline tide of digestion, but has minimal effects on the circadian-advanced people.  Shifting the sleep cycle shifts the sleepiness time in the circadian-advanced people.

Some people have both effects operating simultaneously.

Alkaline-stressed blood is also a risk factor for alkaline indigestion, which is distinguished from acid indigestion by the timing of symptoms.  Classic acid indigestion produces symptoms in roughly 30 minutes, an hour at the latest.  Alkaline indigestion typically produces symptoms 3-4 hours after eating, often in the middle of the night.  The difference is the result of blood pH effects on stomach-acid production.  Unlike bile, which is stored and can be generated in advance of digestion, stomach acid is produced on demand.  Every acid equivalent delivered to the stomach is matched by an alkaline equivalent induced in the blood.  In other words, the acid of the stomach is borrowed from the blood.  If the blood is already alkaline stressed, then borrowing acid is difficult, like trying to use credit cards that are already maxed out.  On the other hand, if the blood is acid stressed, borrowing acid is easy and wellbeing is enhanced.

The health benefits of an alkalizing diet are directly proportional to one’s energy capacities.  Increasing tissue and cellular alkalinity can be a very good thing when it is balanced by increased metabolic rate and increased carbon dioxide.  People who have the capacity for upregulating their energy metabolism do very well on an alkaline diet.

But people who have fundamental metabolic limitations can be easily overwhelmed by a highly alkaline diet.   They experience increased fatigue, decreased stamina, poorer sleep, and increased sensitivity to perfumes.  Instead, they should focus their strategy on increasing their aerobic threshold and basal metabolic rate.

7 thoughts on “pH: The Real Deal”

  1. If the blood is alkaline stressed as you describe, what can be done about it?

    Does the alkaline phosphatase test have anything to do with this, and might it be low in such a case?

    What can be done about treating flat circadian rhythms of pH (urine testing)?

    1. If the blood is alkaline stressed, what can be done about it? If your alkaline stress is dietary, back off the citrus and sea weed, for example. If your blood alkalinity is metabolic, raise your metabolism. This might be done by 1) adding coconut oil (raw or refined) to your diet as a dietary staple, 2) taking thyroid hormone replacement, with or without adrenal support, 3) detoxifying your heavy metal burden, if you have one. Each of these options is its own can or worms. Testing the thyroid axis with blood tests has serious limitations (see earlier blog) when you happen to have “thyroid receptor resistance” (i.e., thyroid resistance), but you can back up inconclusive blood tests with a thyroid hormone “challenge” (a gradually increasing “loading” dose that is faster than the TSH feelback loop, like 1/4 grain increase every week). I believe that the “healthy alkalinizing diet” is only healthy to the extent that your energy systems are capable of balancing the dietary alkalinity with metabolic acidity. If your energy systems successfully balance the alkalinity of your diet, then you thrive. If they fail to balance the alkalinity, then you crash and burn (fatigue, mental fogginess, severe sleep disturbances, depression, lack of strength, lack of stamina, etc.).

      Does the alkaline phosphatase test have anything to do with this? No. Alkaline phosphatase is a liver enzyme that indicates 1) liver malfunction, 2) chemical challenge (usually a drug, but possibly environmental), or 3) liver infection (bacterial or viral hepatitis) when the levels are high.

      What can be done about treating flat circadian rhythms of pH (urine testing)? This is definitely a can of worms. Lack of pH oscillation is an indicator that 1) something is seriously wrong, and 2) that the wrongness has been going on for a long time. It does not indicate which of many causes could be at play. A lack of oscillation is common in cancer patients. What can be done is 1) change your diet, 2) change your nutrition, 3) change your environment, 4) change your relationships, 5) change your exercise routine, 6) change your mind and attitudes, and and 7) change your baggage (psychological scars, resentments, formative experiences). Each of these would be a dissertation.

      Let your mind, intuition, spirituality and feelings guide you towards the thing that seems right–and wrong. Sometimes, the things that seem the most unlikely are the things that are essential. Just like our favorite foods are more likely to be our allergic foods, our resistance to changes can indicate the defensiveness and compensations that we have invested in being right about the world in wrong ways. The old adage, “that which your resist persists,” points to this truism. Even if it is wrong under scientific criteria, does not mean that it can be valuable and even essential to the value of our lives. If this sounds half-baked, read “Myths to Life By” by Joseph Campbell for a better explanation.

      Some of this has been blogged elsewhere. If you want elaborations, please narrow it down for me. —Steve

  2. Thanks Steve for an answer that needs to sink in a while; it is far reaching and comprehensive. There are a few specific things related to your suggestions which I could mention here that might provoke additional helpful insight from you.

    I did recently run a brief experiment with 1/8 grain of thyroid (T3 +T4 for one or two days) two months ago which gave me a helpful kick, normalized my body temps for a few days, made me productive, but also gave me a small thyroid storm the first night. It also brought my TSH down to 1.3 (tested several days after abruptly stopping the support) from what had been 3.09 shortly before the trial. A couple of weeks later I tried 1/16 grain for a longer period of a couple weeks, and I felt it gave some support but I was still bumping along sub optimal with the occasional normal body temperature, but also no thyroid storm. I’m in a low phase currently, without any thyroid support as usual, and would like to try this again only with the benefit of your suggestions (I’m not sure if you’re saying to test weekly for TSH after increasing hormone supplementation each week, or simply see how the body reacts and go from there. I also am not certain about what the thyroid cycle is that you refer to and how it works with your testing protocol.) The intermittent normal temps which are so nice and make me feel that my body and enzymes are working at their correct set-point I experienced with this thyroid supplementation give me some hope that there is a better future.

    I’ve tried supporting adrenal in the past with glandulars and herbs, but haven’t gotten any dramatic or consistent result. Licorice tea (Yogi brand) has been problematic when it builds up. I suspect it wastes potassium. (I’ve also done some long term supplementation with pregnenolone(25-50mg) -extremely helpful for sleep- and 7keto(100mg) or DHEA(25-50mg) which I never felt any particular results from. My blood levels were below average and in range for preg and DHEA. Upon recommendation of a Life Extension doc I pushed my preg up to 100mg/day or more to raise blood test values and promptly became sensitive to it and haven’t been able to use it since without becoming sluggish in mind. I stopped the others because I couldn’t tell that they did anything.)

    Years ago I had mixed results with coconut oil. My first quart was first quality and nicely thermogenic. I cooked with it. The second quart I obtained was more commercial and much more cloudy and seemed to give me gout symptoms after I attempted to use it in salad, and I promptly stopped it, never to return to it.

    Once or twice long ago I tried to use seaweed as a natural iodine source, but it was nothing short of toxic provoking serious metabolic stress (possibly too alkaline after reading your remarks above).

    Thanks for your extensive and timely feedback. I hope my sundry comments and experience can help someone else in this public comment area and that they will ring some bells of insight that you can again share with me.

    1. Bruce, your experiences with thyroid seem to prove that your thyroid receptors are quite responsive. Experiencing hyperthyroidism from an eighth of a grain is definitely sensitivity. So even though your response was positive experientially, it seems more likely to me that you are merely overdriving your thyroid systems to offset some other metabolic problem. People with a primary problem of hypothyroidism and/or thyroid resistance can generally tolerate 1/4 grain increments without hyperthyroid symptoms. And they can work up to multiple grains before seeing hyperthyroid symptoms. If I were in your shoes, I’d look elsewhere.

      But if you pursue the thyroid replacement, increasing by 1/16 grain every week or two, you might reach a point at which you stabilize (any further increase results in hyperthyroidism), or after a year or so, reach total replacement (TSH goes to zero and the negative feedback loop stops operating) and each additional 1/16 grain has even more dramatic effects. This seems to me to risk serious instability of your energy systems and put you in the position of having to micromanage adjustments of thyroid dosing. It might work, but it might be a whole lot of hassle. In other words, it might not be sustainable.

      One of the factors of alkaline pH stress that I did not mention in my previous answer to your first question was alkalinity from digestion. People with alkaline stress often have problems producing stomach acid, and so protein-containing meals produce mental fogginess from the alkaline tide of digestion. The more alkaline stressed the blood becomes, the more difficult the stomach’s job becomes to “borrow” acidity from the alkaline blood stream. This is the classic “sleepiness” syndrome that is commonly noticed following a big Thanksgiving dinner that is mistakenly attributed to the high tryptophan content of turkey meat. If your alkaline stress is worse after eating protein-containing meals, especially worse after bigger protein meals as opposed to protein snacks, then you could take betaine hydrochloride supplements with your protein meals. I think this has been blogged about on this site.

      Given your sensitivity to thyroid, I’d suggest that a different approach is probably more likely to be helpful. And sustainable.

      Your mitochondrial systems may be slightly out of whack. You could do nutritional challenges of each of the nitochondrial nutrients and see if any of them result in an increase in body temperature, mental functioning, or wellbeing. Cognitive testing is often one of the more sensitive self-care tests that you can do.

      One place you can get a comprehensive set of cognitive tests is This site is the creation of Yoni Donner and associates, who are active in the quantified-self movement. If you haven’t checked them out yet, please do so. The quantified-self meeting are accessible through the site and take place in many areas of the world. Their conference will be September 15-16 this year (2012).

      Another aspect of mitochondrial regulation has to do with the “leakage” or uncoupling of the electron transport chain. It appears that different mitochondrial genes are optimized for different uncoupling rates depending on adaptation to local climate variations. So Inuit mitochondrial genes are different from Norse genes, which are different from Italian genes and central African (tropical) mitochondrial genes. Since higher uncoupling raises body temperature, you could experiment with mild uncoupling agents to see if they normalize your body temperature and comfort. Caffeine is the most commonly used uncoupling agent, but there are many to choose from. They can be consumed as teas or as dietary supplements.

      Your experience with seaweed is classic for alkaline blood stress. Seaweed is the most alkaline vegetable on the planet. The most alkaline fruits are citrus (lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruit). Have you had any analogous negative experiences with citrus fruit or juice?

      The last thing I want to mention is coconut oil. Coconut oil is not uniform, and the coconut industry is filled with inconsistency as much as any other food-processing industry. I’ve had coconut oils that are toxic, burnt, and possibly fungally contaminated. years ago, I bought into a 50 gallon drum of raw coconut oil from Brazil that made me sick (nausea) the first time I tried it. Last year, I bought into a 5-gallon bucket of coconut oil from an online “organic” oil supplier that was “smoky,” which I did not mind much, but others found it intolerable. This same smoky coconut oil more recently showed up in Spectrum-brand 14-ounce bottles. I’ve bought coconut oil that was slightly off-color with a slight bitter flavor, which might be from fungal overgrowth and mycotonin contamination. Coconuts exported to the US are treated externally with anti-fungal sprays, and even then one out of every 5-12 young Thai coconuts are gray inside, not white. So the growers/manufacturers might be more likely to convert fungal-infested coconuts into oil than pristine coconuts. The peanut industry does the same thing preferentially converting fungally contaminated peanuts into peanut butter and saving the low-fungus peanuts for sales as whole peanuts. This is why peanut butter has higher aflatoxin levels than whole peanuts.

      In other words, shop around for different brands and different batches of coconut oil before you give it up. —Steve

  3. Thanks again Steve for sharing your knowledge and experience with me here.

    I checked my records; indeed it was an initial 1/8 grain thyroid dose which caused the small storm and daily 1/16 grain intake over a longer period which didn’t cause a storm. I sensed before ending the trial that I had somehow grown more tolerant to the 1/16 grain, and would probably accept 1/8 grain, but did not push the trial further, being cautious. Your comments make me less interested in pursuing thyroid support at this time, but give me some confidence should I decide to do so in the future.

    Your guess on coffee and body temp is true, but only sometimes. At the library coffee shop it has a wonderful effect on me, but here at home no matter what brand I buy, it does not seem to work. I recently picked up a knock off of 5-hour energy shot (first time ever, I’m not prone to whipping-the-horse strategies) took half of it (with about a cup of coffee caffeine), and it got me going for the whole day, a tad driven no doubt, but rock solid at my 98.6 set point. The stuff tasted too vile to embrace though. The trust factor wasn’t there.

    If there were a psychological slant to this, I recall drug addiction research exposing powerful environmental forces on the body’s tolerance with heroin, so much so that the addict who uses a dose at home and can barely get a fix, can suffer death from overdose from the same dose in a strange environment that lacks the discriminative cues of repeated use and subsequent habituation at home. Habituation seems to be as much a psychological event as it is a genuine biochemical one. And I wonder about my circumstances at home living with my dad in a difficult matchup. Which goes back to some of your advice in your first answer to me. (Or perhaps I just don’t know how to either buy or brew coffee.) Perhaps this factor is what makes mainstream medicine extremely cautious with thyroid replacement therapy, using wide lab ranges before they will intervene.

    There is also a bone loss issue (borderline osteoporosis in 2002, if the table scan is to be believed) and a soft tissue calcification issue, particularly after minor trauma like massaging an area hard, rubbing a hand against a potter’s wheel, leaning back for an hour on the edge of a chair too hard. These areas thicken as cysts or even begin laying down calcium growths. With acidic urine, I’ve wondered if the body has been trying to buffer the acid with calcium from my bones, hence my interest in buffering with diet (but at once my intolerance for highly alkaline substances like the seaweed, potassium carbonate etc complicates the matter).

    I notice you said nothing about how to work on supporting the adrenal, necessary for the thyroid to work as you pointed out in another blog. And you suggest coffee, which is often counseled against with a tired adrenal. My various efforts with glandulars and licorice have been very mixed and in some cases troubled, but I will certainly read up on these substances you have recommended. They are certainly worth consideration.

    Your comments about fungi in coconut oil really turn me off and make it less likely to ever use it again. Perhaps it should never be used without cooking it and killing off contaminants. Usually, if one food presents therapeutic benefits, others will also, if only in lesser degree. I wonder what else could be used that’s thermogenic but safer and more consistent.

    I seemed to be getting some benefits from eating kale last fall, but it may be goitrogenic. I think there’s some uncertainty on this.

    Much to learn and life is so short.

  4. I’ve tried HCl before, but can’t get anywhere near the amount suggested to me without hurting my stomach and am now sensitive to it. I’ve considered a dual approach with Marshmallow for stomach protection, followed by HCl admin, but haven’t gotten there.

    1. @Bruce. People with low stomach-acid production feel better when they add betaine HCl to their meals. People with high stomach-acid production feel worse. The only exceptions that I’ve ever heard of to this rule are 1) people with over-methylation problems (betaine carries three methyl groups), and 2) people with ulcers.

      If you are a rational-dominant person and “need” to know, consider a stomach-acid test.

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