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The truth about pH balance and how to tell if yours is in good shape

The list of celebrities subscribing to an alkaline diet to manage their bodies’ pH levels is long — Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston and Alicia Silverstone, just to name a few. But, if Gwenny P were to jump off a bridge (and look damn good doing it), would you follow suit?

I’m going to say, “I hope not.”

The truth is, the alkaline diet certainly isn’t bad for you. It’s full of foods purported to reduce the “acid washing” of your innards (my description, not anyone else’s — but let’s be real, acid washing is rarely a good thing) and includes fruits, vegetables, soy products, nuts, seeds and some legumes.

More: The health benefits of alkaline foods

All of these are healthy items that most people would do well to eat more of anyway… which begs the question: Are the diet’s benefits due to an overall clean and healthy change in eating habits or are they because of the foods’ effects on your body’s pH levels?

Rebecca Bass, a registered dietician with the Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Alliance, puts it this way, “I’m very evidence-based in my practice and I haven’t seen any data suggesting an alkaline diet does anything. Our bodies have an amazing ability to keep our blood pH slightly alkaline, between 7.35-7.45, so why would anything you eat or drink, once it comes in contact with the hydrochloric acid in the stomach, be able to affect your body’s pH?”

Good point. In other words, your body is probably already doing a good job of maintaining the right pH.

But before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s address why pH matters. Dr. Stacy Mobley, integrative doc for go-getters at Bliss Natural Medicine (providing virtual preventative medicine coaching and consulting), says simply, “Proper pH balance allows the body and bodily functions to operate at optimal capacity.”

pH balance: The basics

If the acid-base scale ranges from 0-14, with 0 being perfectly acidic and 14 being perfectly basic, then 7 is exactly neutral. As Bass pointed out, the body’s natural blood pH is slightly basic 7.35-7.45, while the stomach maintains a highly acidic pH at 3.5 or less to help break down and assimilate food. The body, as a highly functional machine, does what it can to maintain homeostasis, so urine pH varies to clear the body of excess acid or base as needed to ensure the blood stays around the optimal 7.35-7.45 levels.

That said, Dr. Mobley points out that certain diets and illnesses can throw your pH out of whack, leading to a more acidic environment in your body. For instance, if you eat the standard American diet (also called the SAD diet) filled with highly processed, high-fat and high-sugar foods, it’s likely you’ll have a higher level of acidity (a lower pH score) than those who eat lots of fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds. Similarly, if you have diabetes, high blood pressure or an autoimmune disease, you’re also likely to have a more acidic blood environment.

More: Spinach and kale just became the best anti-aging health hack

“I personally don’t put too much focus on pH when speaking with my patients, as it’s easy for them to hyper-focus on one particular area of their health. pH is only one of many markers of the healing process.” Dr. Mobley continues, “Yet, it’s a great marker for patients to measure their improvement as they make healthy changes.”

Testing your pH

There’s no major trick to testing your pH. If you remember your high school science classes, you probably remember the litmus paper you used to test the acid or base environment of various chemicals. These same pieces of litmus paper (generally referred to as pH test strips) are available online and at most drugstores to test your body’s pH levels. You simply place a piece of paper in your mouth or in your urine flow for two to three seconds, then compare the resulting color to the test’s provided color sheet.

The key, though, is to test at the right times. Dr. Mobley says, “Test saliva and urine first thing in the morning, before any food, drink or teeth brushing, and two more times a day to get a baseline average of your pH levels.” Because your first urine of the day might be more acidic as it flushes accumulated acid out of your system, you might want to start with your second daily urine.

If your pH falls consistently in a healthy range (Mobley suggests 7.0 to 7.4 as an average), you’re good to go — just continue following an overall healthy lifestyle.

Improving acidic pH levels

If, however, your tests continuously come up low (below 6.8), you may want to make lifestyle changes to help improve your pH. “Greens are the number one way to keep your body more alkaline,” says Mobley. “Junk foods, such as sugar and other processed foods, all create a more acidic pH which creates a breeding ground for many of the chronic illnesses keeping people sick today.”

But Mobley points out, it’s not just about what you eat. “Deep breathing is essential as well. It’s not simply for relaxation, but proper expelling of gases other than oxygen.” Staying fit is important, too. She continues, “Walking can help to keep your blood and lymph circulating, which is great to keep your pH within a healthy range.” Finally, Mobley suggests increasing water intake to flush out acidic by-products while decreasing consumption of alcohol and coffee.

In other words: Eat more fruits and veggies, limit consumption of processed foods and alcohol, exercise more and enjoy the relaxation of deep breathing. In all, it sounds like pH balance is more about living a well-rounded, healthy lifestyle than being stuck following a restrictive alkaline diet or testing your pH every day.

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