Richard G. Petty, MD

Acids and Alkalis

Have you seen those books and advertisements about supplements that are supposed to “alkalinize” your body and therefore avoid the effects of nasty acids? Many have frightening titles, like “Alkalinize or Die.” Some time ago I read a whole bunch of these books while I was trying to help two people with interstitial cystitis. This is a nasty problem, and I had failed to help with conventional medicine, naturopathy, acupuncture or homeopathy. One of the many books that I read claimed that altering the acidity of the urine would cure the problem. It did not.

The basis for these claims that we need to alkalinize our bodies comes primarily from three sets of observations:

  1. That manipulating the external environment of cells in culture and isolated organs can have dramatic effects on the activity and life expectancy of these cells and organs
  2. That some of the products of exercise or metabolism are acidic, and so need to be buffered or expelled from the body
  3. A great many anecdotes about people benefiting from following an “alkalinization” protocol of some sort.

That all sounds good, but it is a big jump to go from cells in culture and perfused organs to whole human beings. Or to base medical advice on anecdotes ALONE.

There is also another origin for some of these ideas, and they derive from the work of Edgar Cayce and some oriental healing traditions: I have enormous respect for both.

I’m a card-carrying biochemist and metabolic physician, so some things about acid/base balance I know well.

Our blood is maintained at a pH of 7.42, and even the tiniest shift can cause major health and psychological problems. So there are sophisticated systems for keeping things in balance. Most of the popular books fail to mention much about the easiest way to change pH, and that is by changing your rate of breathing!

We show people how to do that every day in clinical practice. And when doing electrical recordings of the brain – electroencephalograms – hyperventilation is a good way of inducing some types of abnormal electrical activity.

We know a great deal about how changes in the pH of the blood can impact behavior and many physiological approaches. I’ve worked with hundreds if not thousands of people with disturbances in the acid/base balance of their bodies. Usually as a result of diabetes that was out control, but also scores of other illnesses. Many of them rare but educational.

The populist writers then often talk about excess acid being a stressor. So we don’t want to have acid in our systems because it depletes the alkaline buffers that are supposed to keep things in balance. An interesting idea, but one that can quickly be shown to be deeply flawed. It’s easy for a biochemist to calculate the amounts of acid in single cells, organs and the whole body. We’ve done it thousands of times when treating people with medical conditions like diabetic ketoacidosis and lactic acidosis.

Sadly some of the writers of popular books and articles on acids and alkalis have clearly not studied the literature in any detail.

There have also been some examples of what we call the “Trudeau effect:” vague comments about studies that are supposed to have been completed, but which, if they have been read at all, have never been analyzed by the writer. And often odd statements from books and from research are taken out of context and cited as the Gospel truth. There’s a legal loophole that Trudeau and some others get away with saying things about health that are not supported by any data.

Levels of Evidence
An important concept is what we refer to as levels of evidence. In the past it was often thought that the only kind of evidence to be of any value in clinical decision making had to have been obtained by randomized controlled trials. Yet we all know from experience that there are other types of evidence. A teacher or a colleague may have recommended a course of action based on experience or observation, and this can provide valuable guidance. We now recognize four types of clinical evidence:

  1. Case reports
  2. Case series and uncontrolled observational studies
  3. Retrospective database analyses
  4. Controlled analytic studies, including randomized clinical trials

You will see from this is that even single case reports go into the mix. Numbers one and two and used not as proof, but as ways to generate testable hypotheses.

If you tell me that you have slept better since you started an alkalinization regimen, I’ll see if what you are doing can be applied to others (that’s a pragmatic study), and also whether there could be an explanation for your report (that will need an analytic or mechanistic study).

When we review evidence or perform meta-analyses we give each type of evidence a rating. Controlled studies are given a higher rating than case reports, because the evidence can be generalized to many individual patients. A further refinement is to factor in the source of the study. So research by a pharmaceutical company or a manufacturer of an herbal supplement tends to get a lower rating than an independent study.

Recently someone did indeed tell me that she had slept better since following a special diet. When we looked carefully at the protocol that she was following, it was probably not the alkalinization, but the hops in the diet.

There are many, many claims of health benefits from various diets. The benefits may be genuine, but we need to be very cautious about attributing the success of a diet or any other form of treatment to just one factor.

There is no question that some illnesses, for instance peptic ulcers or gastro-esophageal reflux disease can be made worse by eating an acid diet, and having acid urine can sometimes be very irritating to the bladder.

But the evidence for the benefits of alkalinizing of the whole body – even if it were possible to do it – just does not exist.

You also need to be aware of a potential consequence of "alkalinizing diets:" they can dramatically alter the absorption of some herbs, medicines and supplements.

So what should you do?

  1. The key to any diet is balance: it would be a mistake to be on a diet consisting of just one thing. Experts are always very wary of health claims based on one juice, herb or supplement. Your body is not designed that way: you need a mixture of different fruits and vegetables. When someone tells us that the key to healing is a berry that can only be found in a hidden valley in the Himalayas, we have to ask, “How could that have happened?” How could it be that we evolved or were created with a key ingredient missing?
  2. Avoid drinking carbonated drinks. The old story about a can of Pepsi Cola being a good way to remove oil from your driveway is true. In high school we did the experiment of taking a small nail and leaving it in a sealed container with some carbonated soda. The nail had largely dissolved inside a week.
  3. Keep up your intake of pure water. The current recommendations vary depending upon the time of year and where you live. In the Southern United States, during the summer time, it is currently recommended that you should drink 120 fluid ounces of pure water each day. I personally prefer pure spring water or distilled water. But also bear in mind that if you choose not to drink fluoridated water, that your chance of dental cavities increases. You can get around that problem by applying fluoride directly to your teeth and then rinsing it out. Ask you health care provider about that.
  4. Listen to you body: you should avoid anything that feels irritant, causes indigestion, diarrhea or urinary symptoms
  5. Use you intuition: the answers are within you. One of the most valuable uses of your intuition is not to help you pick lottery numbers, but to help you make wise decisions about your body, your relationships and your subtle systems. I have already written a little about some techniques for listening to and amplifying your intuition, and I shall soon be writing and recording a lot more about those essential topics.

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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