An imaginary problem with an expensive solution
Daniel Liang looks at a familiar world in an unfamiliar way – through a skeptical lens. Every month he peeks under the hood of a meme, myth, bias, or news article. Disclaimer: the opinions expressed do not represent the magazine, advertisers, employer, or the local dairy council.
Is Your Body Acidic Or Alkaline?
A common view on health, especially in Asian cultures, is that the root cause of maladies and diseases is an acidic body, and that the key to good health and longevity is to achieve an alkaline body. One can purportedly become alkaline through diet and consuming alkaline water. There are entire industries based on this concept, such as Kangen, along with countless internet memes and articles. This month, we take a look at the evidence to see if the claims hold water.
What Is The Evidence?
The evidence most often cited is a finding by a Japanese doctor who supposedly tested one hundred cancer patients, and found their blood to be acidic. From this he concludes that acidic blood is the root cause of cancer.
The skeptic’s rule is to always go to the primary source, which in this case would be the actual study. I could not find the doctor, the study, where it was published, whether it was reviewed or replicated – in fact, any trace of it.
For argument’s sake, let’s assume that the doctor existed, did the study, and the findings were real, essentially conceding everything. Despite all this, the conclusion is still invalid. Even if every single patient had acidic blood, one cannot conclude that acidic blood caused the cancer.
Correlation does not imply causation, and this type of study (retrospective observational study) can, by definition, only determine correlation. Why is that? For example, maybe the acidic blood is a side effect from existing therapy. Maybe the acidic blood was caused by the cancer, and not the other way around. Correlation merely suggests a possible connection, yet the brain, hard wired for pattern seeking and causality, often jumps the gun. Highly correlated events may have nothing to do with another, and events that are clearly causal may have no correlation. My favorite example is that even in the days without birth control, the frequency of sex and number of pregnancies have zero statistical correlation. Yet, to mildly understate, sex is the leading cause of pregnancy.
What Are The Benefits?
With slogans like “Change your water, change your life”, what better way is there to make your body alkaline than by drinking alkaline water? The people marketing these machines make claims that sound vaguely scientific, but are either made up or meaningless. For example:
- “Micro-clusters” of water that the body can absorb more readily. This has never been substantiated and has no basis in reality.
- “Oxidation reduction potential”. Although reducing oxidative stress sounds like a great thing, oxidation is a complex system that mocks our simplistic attempts at manipulation. Not that it matters anyway, as there is no evidence that electrolyzed water has any anti-oxidizing potential.
- Detoxifying/hydrating. This, I concede is true. Water hydrates, and your liver and kidney need water to remove waste. In fact, alkaline water works exactly like the tap variety, only more expensive.
Is it even possible to have acidic or alkaline blood? The truth is that we all have alkaline blood, with a pH between 7.38-7.42. Below 7.35, acidosis occurs. Above 7.45, alkalosis occurs. To have acidic blood would mean that your whole body acid-base buffer, homeostasis, is broken. When that happens for an extended period of time, an unpleasant event will happen. It’s called death.
Since bad things can happen if blood pH wanders outside of this very tight range, I wondered, wouldn’t it be easier to kill someone by injecting acid instead of, say, cyanide? After all, anybody that has taken chemistry knows that it doesn’t take much to alter pH levels. I did some research, and to my horror, someone actually tried it. In 1917, Van Slyke and Cullen, sadistically injected a large amount of sulfuric acid directly into the bloodstream of a poor dog. The dog not only lived, but surprisingly, its blood pH level did not change by much. Presumably emboldened by this experiment, many others have proceeded to test the body’s acid-base buffer with a variety of acids and alkali, not only in dogs and cats, but in humans as well.
Why did the blood pH not change? It turns out that our lungs and kidneys are very, very good at regulating pH. If the blood is too acidic, the body will respond by increasing breathing and if the blood is too alkaline, the opposite occurs.
Let’s look at the claims that certain foods or water can affect blood pH. This is a patently absurd claim with no prior plausibility. All food passes through the stomach, which has plenty of hydrochloric acid, an acid strong enough to break down the stomach wall if we did not constantly produce protective mucus. It takes a very large dose of antacid to even temporarily neutralize the acidity, and normal food in normal quantity doesn’t even come close. When food reaches the stomach, it becomes acidic; when it enters the intestines, it becomes alkaline.
What We Learned
Our bodies have a robust system to regulate our pH, making it difficult to alter blood pH levels. It is both difficult and unwise to break homeostasis.
An acidic or alkaline body is an imaginary problem with no scientific basis. And how do you properly address an imaginary problem? Why, with an expensive pseudoscientific machine of course! In short, skip the alkaline water machine and save your hard earned yuan.
We live in a complicated world, and instinctively yearn for simple solutions. Good scams exploit this inclination, mixing common sense lifestyle advice with a nonsensical, magical world view. The best defense against scams is always a healthy dose of skepticism.
点此阅读中文: Chinese (Simplified)