Last month we talked about the nutrients that are important to consume for healthy bones. Remember the “stars of the show” calcium and vitamin D, but the “supporting cast” contains over 15 other nutrients also important in maintaining bone health.

Let’s talk this month about the importance of a properly balanced pH and its effect on bone health as well as other health benefits.

So, what is pH and why is it important to consider?

PH stands for the “potential of hydrogen” . The pH of fluid tells you how alkaline or acidic something is. PH is measured on a scale of 0-14, with 7 being considered pH neutral. The body is designed to operate within a very narrow pH zone. Optimally we should be a little on the alkaline side–with a blood pH of around 7.365-7.45. Keep in mind that this does not reflect the pH of all bodily fluids or tissues, just the blood. For example, in the stomach an acidic pH of 3 or less is required to maintain adequate digestion of nutrients and to protect against microbial infections. The pH of the skin (4-6.5) is also acidic to act as a protectant barrier to microbial overgrowth.

The blood or serum is what bathes all the other cells within our bodies. This pH range then, in the blood, is very important to the overall health of the cells within the body. A minor fluctuation of in the blood’s pH can result in imbalances and create stressors on the body leading to disease states. Inflammation, arthritis, heartburn, poor circulation, skin conditions, eczema, fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, and a weakened immune system may all be related to alterations in the body’s ability to maintain an optimal pH.

When it comes to pH and net acid load on the diet, there has been considerable change from when we humans lived as hunter gatherers. With the agricultural revolution and then with the industrialization of foods, there has been a significant shift in the mineral content of our food. It is now widely known that there has been a decrease in potassium (K) compared to sodium (Na) and an increase in Chloride (Cl) compared to bicarbonate. As well, diets today are much poorer in magnesium and fiber and very high in saturated fats, sugars, sodium, and chloride. These triggers — an altered intake of known buffers to acidity and a diet rich in fats, sugars, processed carbohydrates and alcohol — may induce a relative metabolic acidosis. When the pH is not optimal, more free radicals are created. Free radicals are negatively charged ions and can act as tissue damagers. if they are not properly neutralized or “detoxified” by the body. This is how disease is created.

For most of us, as we age and continue to eat a modern diet, there is some gradual loss of renal acid/base regulatory function and a resultant additional strain on the body to maintain proper pH. Recall that the body is incredibly efficient at maintaining the critical narrow range of pH in the blood. For this reason, with the exception of severe, critical disease, the serum or blood pH is normal, but the urine or saliva pH variable may reflect this strain.

The urine may have a variable pH from acid to alkaline depending on the body’s need for balancing the internal environment. Food can be categorized by their potential acid load (PRAL). Foods that have a high acid load in general are: meats, dairy, fried foods, and processed grains. Foods that are alkali rich are fruits and vegetables. Not hard to remember!!!

So, now that we understand the basics regarding pH and that the Standard American Diet (SAD) sets us up for a more acid environment, let’s get back to bone health.

Calcium represents a large reservoir of base in our body. In response to an acid load, as in the modern diet, calcium salts are released into the systemic circulation to bring about homeostasis–in other words, maintain a proper pH. One study estimated that the amount of calcium lost in the urine over a lifetime could be over half the skeletal mass of calcium. Keep in mind that calcium and the balance of other minerals in the blood is not just attributed to our acid base status. This is a very complex system with many regulatory factors. For instance, bone minerals that are wasted in the urine may be compensated for by increased intestinal absorption of calcium, magnesium and phosphate. This is directly a result of vitamin D. More than 50% of the population is deficient in Vitamin D. So, combine a diet rich in acid forming foods, food already deficient in minerals, and low Vitamin D status and we have the perfect environment to promote osteoporosis.

I could not find any study to date that directly compared an acid rich diet with an alkaline diet and its direct effect on the development of osteoporosis, but if we understand the stress it creates on the body, then we certainly would want to reduce the intake of acid rich foods on a chronic basis.

In the standard American diet the typical ratio of acidic to alkaline foods is 80/20. Ideally this ratio should be flipped. More like 60-80 % alkaline and 20-40 % from acidic.

So, how does one measure pH? One of the easiest ways to measure pH is in a first morning void of urine, before you eat or drink anything. You can obtain urine strips from the pharmacy. I recommend if you are going to do this, sample your urine three to four times in a week for a two to three week period and then take the average. A urine pH should be ideally above 6.5. If your urine pH is consistently below this marker, talk to your doctor. You may want to begin here in making changes in your diet. Remember, the standard American Diet (SAD) is high in processed grains, saturated fats, low in vegetables, fruits and fibers — all the things that we now know can put strain on the acid buffering system in our body. Remember FOOD is MEDICINE, make changes to your diet today to promote the intake of more vegetables, fruits and healthy grains to improve overall health!!! Not only will you protect your body from further stress, but you will feel better as well, I guarantee it!

Beware about scanning the internet for foods that are rich in alkaline forming and foods to avoid because they are acidic. This will cause you extreme confusion. Some foods, take for example a lemon, that are thought be very acidic, actually create a more alkaline load in the body. My take home point?? Get rid of the junk–throw away all the excesses–coffee, alcohol, fatty meats, processed grains, fried foods, processed cheeses, and eat more fresh vegetable and fruit everyday. If you have trouble altering your pH with these suggestions, see your doctor for a more complete list of foods and suggestions.