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Demystifying Acid & Alkaline

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Demystifying Acid & Alkalike

by Verne Varona

Macrobiotics Today, George Ohsawa Macrobiotic Foundation

May/June 2001

The following is part of a chapter entitled, The Healing Power of Acid and Alkaline from Nature's Cancer-Fighting Foods by Verne Varona.

The concept of acid/alkaline remains one of the most misunderstood concepts in nutrition. It is commonly referred to as terrain medicine, a reference to treating the whole individual. It has been established that pH in the blood, saliva, urine, and other areas is a critical factor for building health.

How does one determine an acid or alkaline condition? Through blood work? Saliva tests? Hair analysis? Muscle resistance? Urine? These are some of the tests being recommended by current nutrition authors. Most of these tests can show relative amounts of acid or alkaline, which is always interesting to compare. But there are so many varieties of acid and alkaline appearing in the system that to get any conclusive results about your acid/alkaline status it might be best to read the intracellular fluid—a test rarely performed. Most current diagnostic tests show the acid wastes present in the body fluids of blood, lymph, urine, mucus, or saliva. The problem with such tests is that they don't read how much acid waste is within the cellular fluids since these fluids are running through tissues and removing acid wastes. While it might be possible to measure the relative acid or alkalinity of body fluids, it is rare and more complicated to evaluate the acid or alkaline quality of body tissues such as skin, organs, glands, muscles, ligaments, arteries, and vessels. The majority of standard tests focus mainly on saliva, urine, or blood.

The tissue quality of skin, organs, glands, muscles, ligaments, arteries, and vessels is the real determining factor of our health. When acid wastes are not eliminated, they become reabsorbed through the colon, get filtered through the liver, and end up being re-released into the general circulation. In this case, you're re-circulating waste, as opposed to cleansing and rejuvenating.

Even measuring a person's blood for acid/alkaline variations can be a difficult task. When acid is introduced into the blood, alkaline minerals from other parts of the body (digestive fluids, bones, etc.) are immediately mobilized to maintain a crucial pH balance of 7.35 to 7.45. The blood cannot tolerate elevated acidity. It must alkalize. To do this, it goes on an alkaline borrowing spree, indiscriminately and immediately, with no intention of paying back the bone, tissue, and digestive juice mineral donors. This means that to do a blood test for an accurate acid/alkaline reading, testing would require your doctor to take blood samples at numerous intervals throughout the day and only after eating one particular food to obtain a true reading.

This could be very exhausting, costly, and still not reliable.

A number of nutrition writers suggest testing acid/alkaline levels with litmus paper (saliva) or urinalysis sticks (urine). Thinking you can determine acid/alkaline pH through such testing is assumptive, simplistic, and misleading. Saliva or urine is not reflective of your overall acidity. Such arbitrary and unpredictable testing does not read the cellular fluid or tissue quality of skin, organs, glands, muscles, ligaments, arteries, and vessels. It can only yield a partial evaluation.

The best barometer for evaluating your general acid/alkaline levels is your overall well-being.

Carbohydrate Digestion—the Tortoise and the Hare
Recently, a biochemistry student attending one of my public talks complained that “whole grains eventually turn to glucose, just like white sugar, so they really have the same effect.”

He was partially correct.

In the long run, both simple and complex carbohydrates turn to the simple sugar glucose. Both share a common acidity, but in different degrees; sugar is a high-acid food and grains/grain products are low-acid foods. However, I explained that the real difference has to do with the rate of absorption. It's like claiming that newspaper and wood logs burn identically in your fireplace. Of course, they don't. One burns quickly and the other has a more enduring and consistent flame. The tortoise and the hare both reach the end of the race, but at different speeds.

Recent studies have shown that refined grain products, despite being classified as complex carbohydrates, in many cases digest almost as quickly as simple sugars. Whole grains, such as brown rice, barley, and oats, digest more evenly and at a slower speed. Complex-sugar digestion does not cause high and low swings in blood sugar levels. It's stabilizing.

Making healing zone choices will encourage good, sustaining health. This doesn't mean you should never eat food from the strong acid category; it means you should respect the power of strong acid and freely indulge as your health and sensitivity permits. Otherwise you run the risk of becoming fatigued, less emotionally stable and with diminished immunity. This can set you up for sickness.

I've met and counseled many vegetarians who live on daily diets of high acid-forming foods (honey, fruits. sugar. etc.) and lack in whole grain, sea salt, or some of the blood-strengthening fermented foods (naturally brewed soy sauce, tamari, or miso). For vegetarians, whole grains and fermented soy products such as tamari and miso, although seemingly exotic, offer essential value and taste appeal which quickly results in more energy and better digestion. The typical high acid-forming vegetarian diet can cause muscle weakness, fatigue, poor memory, inability to gain weight, decreased sexual desire, and diminished immune function.

For years, in private counseling practice, I've successfully advised vegetarian clients to reduce strong acid foods while adding small amounts of high-alkaline foods. Within a week, positive differences become positively noticeable.

Acid /Alkaline Confusion
An acid- or alkaline-forming food refers to the condition food causes in the body after being digested—and herein lies the problem: Most charts, books, and explanations on acid and alkaline categorize food by ash content.

This perspective creates a broad misunderstanding since scientists are estimating a food's acid- or alkaline-forming capacity through a controlled laboratory procedure called titration. As a first step, this titration process burns the food (attempting to duplicate digestion). Next, about a liter of pure water is added to 100 grams of the resulting ash, producing a solution that is then tested to estimate the degree of relative acidity or alkalinity.

What occurs in vitro during lab experiments cannot substitute for what occurs in human digestion. Burning a lemon to ash leaves alkaline elements and no trace of its natural acidity, which is why lemons are usually classified as an alkaline-forming food. The same applies for honey, maple syrup, malts, and most fruits. The natural acidity and simple sugar content actually make lemon an acid fruit. Even if you're left with mineral ash, after digesting the fruit, the residual acidity of sugar's metabolism has a sustaining influence in your sugar and insulin levels and cortical hormone output.

Frequently you’ll hear nutritional experts recommend that we, “eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.” They're always lumping fruits and vegetables together. Why? There is a vast difference between these food groups. In most individuals, fruits have an acid effect, whereas most vegetables will tend to alkalize, since their sugar structures are complex and not simple. In our great reverence for science, we've overlooked the fact that trying to replicate human digestion under artificial lab conditions, performed outside the body, cannot possibly yield the same result that occurs with natural digestion. In many acid and alkaline writings, authors wax eloquent about the “alkalizing effect of fruits” to support their recommendations. Again, if someone is registering a high alkalinity, a little fruit can be highly beneficial and reduce the high alkalinity to a more mild status. Confusing as it may be, this is relative to an individual's condition.

How Sugar Produces Acidity
Simple carbohydrates are small numbers of sugar units that get absorbed into the blood immediately on contact with the mouth. Before you can say “fruitcake!” they've entered your blood and with lightning speed are distributed to body cells. This is where the problem begins: Simple sugars flood body cells with glucose so quickly that the oxygen necessary for effectively burning and metabolizing the sugar is not available. The end result of this incomplete burning generates acidity. This is why so-called alkaline fruits actually acidify the blood.

Refined sugar, the empty nutrient food, has been stripped of virtually all minerals and vitamins. The minerals that have been processed out are essential for the building of tissues and bones, nervous system functioning, and blood filtering. Without a constant renewal of iron and sodium elements from this powerfully concentrated nonfood, the blood cannot take up sufficient oxygen. Metabolic waste products then fail to be neutralized and eliminated. The result is a bloodstream burdened with various acids (lactic acid, butyric acid, pyroracemic acid, acetic acid, carbonic acid, etc.). As acid levels in the blood elevate, a general drowsiness and sluggishness occurs—typical symptoms of sugar's carbonic acid toxicity. Therefore, the end result of sugar metabolism in the human body is acid forming.

Sometimes you'll hear the argument that unrefined simple carbohydrates (honey, maple syrup, rice syrup, barley malt, raw brown sugar, evaporated organic cane sugar, molasses, etc.), unlike refined white sugar, “contain some minerals” that “help balance sugar's acidity.”

Don't bet on it.

While honey might contain some alkalizing minerals to classify it alkaline forming, chemically, its overwhelming sugar content (approximately 86 percent) keeps it acidic in the human body. The same applies for maple syrup, barley malt, corn syrup, and other sweet concentrates. Natural quality sweet syrups with some mineral content, such as barley malt, rice syrup, maple syrup, and molasses, are healthier choices when you desire a sweetener; however, they can still be highly acid forming. Moderation, again, is the key.

Mineral Theft
You're being swindled. Yes, it's a harsh truth to face, but on a daily basis, from right under your own nose, grand larceny occurs with almost every meal you consume, and it's happening in your very own body—your mineral bank is being blatantly robbed!

And all you can say is “What's for dessert?”

Here's the frightening internal drama that might be occurring every time you eat food that tips the acid balance: If we cannot maintain an alkaline condition of body fluids, it becomes difficult to maintain healthy cells. When cells are not healthy, organs become sick, and body fluids become more acidic and toxic as weakened cells turn into sick cells. Eventually, this can develop into numerous degenerative conditions. The normal pH for all tissues and fluids in the body, except the stomach, centers on neutral or slightly alkaline.

It may seem insignificant that the blood borrows minerals from the bones; however, if continued, it could eventually lead to osteoporosis—porous bones from loss of minerals. Since there are over 206 bones in the human body, the bones represent the largest storage of usable minerals, making them a reliable source for borrowing. It's actually more like remorseless theft because the blood ends up defaulting on the loan—those minerals are never replaced. Borrowing is just a cosmetic term.

Mineral loss will also affect the ability of your immune system to function at an optimal range. In using diet to support the healing process, minerals are vital elements for a strong, resilient immune system.

What Happens When You're Too Acid
Current nutritional research links high acidity to numerous mental problems, arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, asthma, morning sickness, osteoporosis, indigestion, allergies, as well as the following conditions that are related to cancer:

Nutritional Conditions

•   An acidic condition hinders antioxidant activity. Free radical oxidation is encouraged in an acid medium.


•   A lowered muscle pH leads to a decrease in muscle permeability, causing nutrients to become blocked from entering cells. Nutritional absorption, from food or supplement sources, becomes compromised.


•   Cellular APT production decreases. This results in mood, stamina, and energy changes. Fatigue is a common sign of excess acidity.


Immunity Breakdown

•   Excess acid hinders the breakdown of food within the small intestine. This occurs particularly in the area known as Peyer's patches, which are linked with longevity and produce lymphocytes to assist the lymph system in maintaining immunity. Excess acid weakens the production of these lymphocytes and negatively affects absorption.


•   The immune system is impaired. An acidic condition decreases the beneficial bacteria within the intestine. Nutritional absorption of the B vitamin group is diminished.


•   Fatigue, from failure to remove acid waste within and around the cell, is one of the most common problems from excess acidity.


Organ Damage

•   The heartbeat can be altered by acidic wastes when these wastes diminish tissue oxygenation. A moderate alkaline system creates ideal regularity.


•   Excessive acidic wastes create added labor for the lungs, whose main job is to help rid the system of carbon dioxide.


•   All nourishment assimilated by the intestines enters the blood via the liver. The burden on the liver is greater when acid blood wastes are excessive.


•   In addition to regulating blood sugar, the pancreas produces alkaline enzymes and sodium bicarbonate. The physiological functions of the pancreas are designed to reduce excess acidity. To create optimal blood sugar balance, the pancreas requires an alkaline diet.


•   Of all organs, the kidneys probably take the brunt of damage from acid wastes. In the last minute, over 1 liter of blood was filtered through your kidneys. The kidneys work ceaselessly to maintain blood alkalinity. Research has shown that kidney stones are composed of waste acid cells and mineral salts that have become adhesively bonded in an albuminous (waste acid) substance. Reducing acid-forming products from entering the body increases the likelihood of avoiding this painful condition.


•   Toxins cannot be thoroughly removed via the kidneys, liver, and intestines. This creates greater susceptibility to infections and headaches.



•   The quality of your sleep becomes affected. You find yourself needing more sleep to compensate for poor-quality sleep. Difficulty in awakening is usually a sign of excess acidity.


Lymph System

•   Our bodies have about an equal number of lymph vessels as blood vessels, including over 600 lymph glands. The amount of lymph fluid we have is three times as much as blood, and this fluid has the dual function of transporting nutrition to the cell and removing acid waste products. Lymph flows best in an alkaline medium. However, if the lymph fluid is acidic, its movement is slowed, creating dryness and microscopic adhesions throughout the tissues. Acid wastes reach the tissues through lymph and blood toxicity. The scope of this problem can be responsible for numerous conditions, from inflamed nodes to lowered immunity and bowel irregularity.

Cancer and the Growth of Cancer Cells
German biochemist Dr. Otto Warburg had his own theories back in 1923 as to the cause of cancer. In 1931 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work. In his book The Metabolism of Tumors, Dr. Warburg explains that the primary cause of cancer is the replacement of oxygen in the respiratory chemistry of normal cell by the fermentation of sugar. After taking healthy cells and withdrawing oxygen, Dr. Warburg found that they would consistently turn cancerous. Without oxygen the glucose will ferment. Cancer cells live on the fermentation of glucose due to lack of oxygen.

A normal cell is surrounded by a membrane, which selectively allows materials such as oxygen and nutrients, including glucose, to flow in and cellular chemistry waste products to flow out. The cells are protected by the immune system, which in a well-functioning system normally provides adequate defense against the formation of cancer cells. However, environmental toxins can overwhelm the system and weaken immunity. The process of cell breakdown strikes the membrane first; it loses its ability to exchange oxygen (a.k.a. respiration). Then the cell reverts to a primitive survival mechanism—fermentation. The newly formed cancer cell, which is anaerobic (without oxygen), cannot be repaired since fermentation is not reversible. The cell is now out of control and if not destroyed will continue to mutate and divide. In 1966, Warburg found that a 35 percent decrease in oxygen caused embryonic cells to change into cells with malignant characteristics.

In the 1950s, the National Cancer Institute verified Dr. Warburg's work. Unfortunately, little mainstream research has been done to determine the causes of a lack of oxygen in the human body. Most researchers have been attempting to halt the fermentation process through drugs, radiation, and surgery. Sometimes these therapies are temporarily successful. However, the goal is not only to find ways to bring oxygen to the system, but to understand what we are doing on a daily basis that robs valuable oxygen. Current research confirms that an abundance of acidity, whether it originates from excessive fat, free radical formation, or excessive dietary sugar, impedes cellular oxygen levels.

Final Word on Acid/Alkaline
The proof of your body's acid and alkaline condition can best be determined by your own experience, not by peer-reviewed studies, medical establishment support, or static dietary guidelines. Without getting obsessively technical, the most practical advice would be to experiment for several weeks with a food plan that stays close to the middle of the acid and alkaline scale. You'll notice dramatic positive changes that can be attributed to your experiment. This will be your best teacher.

The negative symptoms associated with excess acidity are probably infinite. It's not the symptoms that need to be addressed (unless you're in severe pain); it's the root cause, the way we eat, our exposure to stress and its effect on blood chemistry, immunity, and daily vitality. I believe, in the near future, that acid and alkaline nutritional research will become an increasingly valid foundation for determining dietary safety and healing protocols.

Verne Varona, a certified nutritional counselor, is an acclaimed authority on natural healing. He is the author of the new book, Nature's Cancer-Fighting Foods. Verne frequently lectures at the annual French Meadows Summer Camp in the Tahoe National Forest..


Last modified: 02/21/05