Does low vegetable consumption contribute to poor health? Yes, but maybe not in the way you might think. In addition to mucking with your microbiome, if you don’t eat your veggies, you may be causing your body to be too acidic.
Each system in the body needs the proper pH in which to work, so if a system’s pH environment is out of whack, we wind up with issues. For example, our stomach requires an acidic environment, while the small intestine requires an alkaline one. Our blood is especially susceptible to shifts in pH levels, requiring our respiratory system and kidneys to work together to tightly control the pH level of blood keeping it between 7.35 and 7.45.
Why do we need to worry about this? During normal metabolic and biochemical functions, our bodies generate acidic waste products that must be neutralized and removed. This may be why we are usually more acidic in the morning after all those nocturnal activities. If our bodies become overly acidic, in addition to an ever-expanding waistline, accumulation of these acids tends to lead to chronic and degenerative diseases.
Why are we so acidic?
Besides our metabolic byproducts, according to Dr. Dan, MD, “Our food, water, and air are loaded with acid-forming substances like chlorine and chemical preservatives. Poor food choices, acidic ingredients, and low mineral content of food all contribute to a condition of acid overload.”
- Loss of lean body mass (sarcopenia) means we can’t buffer acids with our muscles
- Immune system imbalance
- Deficiency of key nutrients such as vitamin D, zinc, selenium, magnesium, and potassium
- Using fat and protein instead of carbohydrates to derive energy (this can lead to an excessive production of acids) for some folks
- Accumulation of lactic acid from alcohol, excessive exercise, inflammation, liver issues, medications like aspirin, lack of oxygen from anemia or other conditions, dehydration, etc.
What happens if we are too acidic?
If the body is unable to naturally buffer acidity, it will use the calcium and magnesium stored in our bones to neutralize the extra acid, or it will produce ammonia (which is a base) from our muscles to use as a neutralizer. Once the neutralizing response is complete, the minerals (from our now-compromised bone and broken-down muscles) are excreted into the urine.
As the process continues, the body may also try to buffer acids by releasing chloride molecules from the cells. Chloride usually attaches to minerals such as calcium or magnesium (which form mineral salts that are deposited in our tissues). At first, there may not be any signs or symptoms of this chloride release, but soon the aches and pains begin and energy declines. Add to the mix salts formed by other acids (i.e., uric acid) that may also end up in joints and cartilage, and you wind up with additional stiffness and pain.
Acidity may also lead to compromised oxygen delivery. Why? According to Dr. Dan, if you are acidic, oxygen doesn’t attach to the red blood cells correctly. He uses this analogy to help make this concept easier to understand. Imagine if you will, a red blood cell as a bus and oxygen, a potential passenger. With high acidity or acidosis, the passenger (oxygen) hears rumors of robbers on the bus (red blood cells) and decides not to get on. And without oxygen aboard, we are not able to make our energy effectively.
Low pH (i.e., acidic) levels may also lead to inflammation, which can overload the body’s immune and detoxification processes. This allows bacteria and yeast to go wild in our internal “acidic hot tub.” According to Dr. J. Moss, when this acidic condition persists for a long time, the body’s mineral reserves can run dangerously low, leading to diseases like stroke, high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, and other degenerative disorders.
How do we know which foods are acidic and which are alkaline?
It is necessary to eat both acidic and alkaline foods to maintain a balanced diet, but on average, American diets tend to be acidic. Ideally, we want about 1:3 ratio of acid to alkaline foods.
You can’t tell if food is acidic or alkaline alone, but rather by the response it creates in the body. For example, many people think of lemons as acidic, and while they are classified as an acidic fruit, lemons are actually an alkaline-forming food. During the normal process of digestion, these acids are turned into carbon dioxide and water, which is not acidic.
Acid-forming foods include dairy, grains, meats, and sugar. These are mainly metabolized into sulfuric acid. By including a large amount of alkaline foods such as fruits and vegetables in your diet, these acid-forming foods are mainly metabolized into potassium bicarbonate.
Most foods have both acid and alkaline minerals in them, so foods with greater concentrations of acidic minerals are considered “acidic” and foods with greater concentrations of alkaline minerals are considered “alkaline.” Foods high in calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and sodium are considered alkaline-forming foods. Foods rich in chloride, phosphate and sulfate are acid-forming.
How about taking supplements to counteract acidity?
Studies have shown that supplementation with magnesium (facilitated with choline citrate, according to Dr. Jaffe, MD), potassium bicarbonate or potassium citrate can counteract an acid-forming diet and help reverse the process of osteoporosis.
In a study published in 2006 Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, 161 postmenopausal women with low bone mass were split into 2 groups. For one year, the test group was given 1,080 mg of potassium citrate (which is slightly alkaline) daily. The control group was given 2,250 mg of potassium chloride (which is not alkaline) daily. At the end of the study, the group taking potassium citrate had a nearly 2% increase in bone at the lower spine and the hip (with less excreted calcium in their urine), while the control group given potassium chloride showed an average bone density loss of 1% at the lower spine.
This study showed that it wasn’t just the potassium that made a difference, it was the type that was used. Much of the loss of lean tissue mass that occurs with aging can likely be prevented by increasing the intake of alkaline potassium salts to the recommended level and by including potassium citrate rich fruits and vegetables in your diet.
Note: Legally, supplements cannot contain more than 99 mg of potassium per daily dose since large doses can alter the sodium-potassium ratio too quickly and lead to an irregular heartbeat in patients with kidney disease.
What if supplements are not your thing? Take a bath! Try soaking in a bath with 1 cup of Epsom salts. Ideally, these baths should be done 3-5 per days for approximately 5-15 minutes. For elderly patients or others who have difficulty getting in and out of a bathtub, foot soaks can be used.
Can you be too alkaline?
Enzymes throughout the body are designed to work at a certain pH, whether that’s acidic, neutral, or basic. If you are too alkaline, you may be limiting certain metabolic activities—for example, digestion.
When we become too alkaline, tissues are unable to release the oxygen when it is needed, so we end up tired, out of breath, brain-challenged, etc. Going back to our bus analogy, if the body is too alkaline as it is during alkalosis, the passenger (oxygen) gets on the bus (red blood cell), but since the outside weather is hot and muggy and the bus is air-conditioned, the oxygen decides to stay on the bus and just rides around and around making it unavailable for use.
According to Dr. Russell Jaffe, MD, if your morning pH is greater than 7.5 in your first morning urine, you might be breaking down your muscles to meet your metabolic needs and simultaneously losing ammonia in the urine. This will cause a rise in the pH. Remember, we are looking for first-morning values to be between 6.5 and 7.5.
You might want to take dietary changes slowly. According to Dr. Dan, “If your liver or kidneys are weak and unable to detoxify the poisons mobilized by the new alkaline pH, a rash may form on your skin in 1 to 3 days. The poisons are trying to come out, but the only way left is to come out the skin and the toxins cause a rash to form. To aid toxin removal by way of the skin, use a natural bristle brush and brush the skin from the extremities toward the heart just before getting into a hot bath with 2 cups of Epson salts in the water. Soak for 30 minutes, rewarming the water as needed. Shower afterward to rinse off the toxins. This soak pulls out quite a few toxins from the body and decreases the risk of developing a rash. During this period of time that you are trying to increase your pH, it is imperative to be consuming 6 to 8 glasses of filtered water per day. And remember, it will take 32 glasses of highly alkaline water with a pH of 9 or more to undo the damage done by one glass of cola (pH of 2.5).” (Alkaline pH goes up to 14.) He also recommends the use of organic castor oil packs if that is your preference. With any detox reaction, you can always use activated charcoal capsules—mix a handful into a glass of water—or lots of vitamin C or Alka-Seltzer® Gold to help minimize the response.
To get a feel for your acidity level, we look at your standard blood test, such as CO2 and anion gap. We also look at the calcium-to-phosphorous ratio. A normal ratio is 2.5:1.
You can always test your first morning urinary or salivary pH or do a simple breath test.
If all else fails and you don’t see yourself eating all those veggies with every meal or taking supplements, consider making green drinks a normal part of your diet. Polyphenols are the way to go and can really help your microbiome, brain, and immune system. If you go to Whole Foods, for example, get a green drink. Jamba Juice, green drink. Farmer’s market, green drink. Coffee house, green drink. Hey, if Carl’s Junior can go grass-fed and McDonalds is now serving “healthy foods,” it shouldn’t be long before Starbucks and Costco will be selling freshly made green drinks. Whatever the public wants, right?
One note of caution: if you find yourself feeling worse when you consume lots of greens, you may have a possible issue with oxalates, phenols, salicylates, etc. You might want to work with a practitioner to help work this out.