pH Mythology: Separating pHacts from pHiction

A Quick Primer: pH 101

pH Chart

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pH stands for potential of hydrogen. It is a logarithmic scale from 0 to 14 that measures the concentration of hydrogen ions. Water is neutral at pH 7; solutions with a pH less than 7 are acidic; solutions with a pH greater than 7 are basic, or alkaline. Logarithmic means the units represent 10-fold differences: pH 4 indicates 10 times as many hydrogen ions as pH 5. The pH of blood is maintained within a narrow range of 7.34–7.45 by a process known as acid-base homeostasis. Deviations are quickly corrected by compensatory mechanisms in the lungs and kidneys. The pH of stomach acid is 1.5–3.5, human skin 4.7, cerebrospinal fluid 7.5, and pancreas secretions 8.1. None of these are affected by the composition of the diet. The pH of urine can range from 4.6 to 8.0; it changes as the kidneys re-establish homeostasis after an acid or alkaline load. The pH of urine does not reflect the pH in blood or anywhere else in the body.

The Acid/Alkaline: Theory of Disease

This theory claims that too much acidity in the body causes disease, and that eating alkaline foods and drinking alkaline water will improve health. People are encouraged to test the pH of their urine to monitor their acid/alkaline balance. On Quackwatch, Dr. Gabe Mirkin explained that the acid/alkaline theory of disease is nonsense because dietary modification cannot change the acidity of any part of the body except the urine. He says, “If you hear someone say that your body is too acidic and you should use their product to make it more alkaline, you would be wise not to believe anything else the person tells you.”1

An herbalist offered a rebuttal, explaining that while the urine pH is not the same as blood pH, health is affected by small changes in blood pH within the normal range, and the urine pH is a good indicator of how hard your body is having to work to maintain homeostasis and how much stress that is putting on the body’s reserves.2 He claims that being on the low side of the normal blood pH range is unhealthy. There isn’t a shred of evidence to support those claims.

The Alkaline Diet

The alkaline diet leaps wildly to false conclusions from a simple fact: certain foods produce acid ash. In order to buffer the additional acid load, they say the body pulls out alkaline-rich minerals like calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium from the bones, teeth and organs. They say this leads to osteoporosis and fatigue, and compromises our immune system, making us vulnerable to viruses and disease. Avoiding acid foods will make the urine more alkaline, and people with alkaline urine are said to have a reduced risk of osteoporosis, cancer, and heart disease. The alkaline diet is said to facilitate weight loss and increase energy. It is even used to treat cancer. Proponents offer testimonials and cite cherry-picked studies that seem to support their beliefs. However, systematic analyses of all the published scientific studies have determined that the evidence does not support the acid/alkaline theory of disease, so it should be dismissed as pseudoscience.

Alkaline promoting foods include most fruits and vegetables, soybeans, tofu, some nuts, seeds and legumes. Acid promoting foods to be avoided include dairy, meat, fish, most grains, fast foods, and processed foods. The top ten villains are: lard, peanut butter, cranberries, white pasta and bread, beef, corn oil, pork, potatoes, beer and hard liquor, and butter. There is reason to worry that advice to avoid all dairy, meat, fish, and grains might result in poor nutrition for some.

Alkaline Water

You can buy alkaline water or make your own. It is said to detoxify (a meaningless alternative medicine buzzword), hydrate (all water hydrates), oxygenate and act as an antioxidant (these are opposite effects: how could it do both?), change your body’s pH (no, it doesn’t), and enhance the immune system (based on the ridiculous claim that acidic foods cause the body’s cells to suffocate, break down and die, and this suffocation weakens the systems that support the immune system). Alkaline water is also said to help you lose weight, prevent diabetes, and cure psoriasis. None of these claims are supported by any scientific evidence. You can pay anywhere from 3.1 cents to $1.36 per ounce for alkaline water; even the least expensive products are a waste of money.

The Bob Wright Protocol

This protocol uses 11.5 pH water made with a Kangen machine. In this view, cancer is caused by microbes; there are many of these microbes in every cancer cell. They excrete highly acidic waste products called mycotoxins. When the microbes are killed, the cancer cells revert to normal cells. Killing them too quickly or too slowly are both counterproductive, and the Bob Wright protocol is designed to kill them at the optimum rate.3 I don’t think I need to point out how monumentally silly all that is.

Robert O. Young

All this nonsense about pH is more than just a harmless fad. Here’s where it gets really scary. Robert O. Young is a naturopath and author of the “pH Miracle” series of books. He says acid is the cause of all disease, alkalinization is the cure for everything, and there is no such thing as a cancer cell. Cancer surgeon and researcher Dr. David Gorski has debunked those ideas handily on the Science-Based Medicine blog.4And on Quackwatch, Stephen Barrett has taken a critical look at “Dr.” Robert Young’s theories and credentials.5

Young appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show claiming to have cured a woman named Kim Tinkham of breast cancer. She died of breast cancer not long after she appeared on Oprah and told the world that she was cured. A number of other cancer patients have died under Young’s care.

It gets worse. A recent BBC News report was titled “The dying officer treated for cancer with baking soda.”6 A British army officer, Naima Houder-Mohammed, was treated conventionally for breast cancer, but it recurred and her condition was so serious she was offered end-of-life care. Grasping at any straw of hope, she found Dr. Young on the internet. They began an e-mail correspondence, and he offered her an 8–12 week treatment program at his “pH Miracle Ranch” in California, at a cost of $3000 a day. Naima’s family used their savings, ran fund-raising events, and got funding from a charity to cover her expenses. The treatment involved IV infusions of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). After three months at the Ranch, she got worse and was hospitalized. She flew back to the UK where she died at the age of 27. She was going to die anyway, but Young gave her false hope and billed her and her family $77,000 for treatments that were based on pseudoscience and couldn’t possibly work. He even insisted that she wire the funds to his office before she came to his Ranch.

Young told the BBC reporters, “All sickness and disease can be prevented by managing the delicate pH balance of the fluids of the body.” And “when your blood becomes acidic, something weird happens, and your blood cells transform into bacteria—a phenomenon he calls pleomorphism— thereby resulting in a diseased state.” And “Germs are nothing more than the biological transformation of animal, human or plant matter. They’re born out of that.” The BBC reporters called this “post-truth.” “Dangerous nonsense” would be a better descriptor.

When the BBC asked if he felt remorse, Young answered, “I don’t have remorse because of the thousands if not millions of people that have been helped through the [alkaline diet] programme.”

Young has been prosecuted three times. The first time, he pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor charge of attempted practice of medicine without a license; the charges were dismissed under a plea deal. In 2001 he was charged with a felony for telling a cancer patient to stop her chemotherapy and use his “Super Greens” product instead. The charges were dropped because the prosecutor didn’t think there were enough angry victims to get a conviction. In 2014, Young was arrested and charged with multiple counts of grand theft and practicing medicine without a license. Six cancer patients named in the complaint had died, but their survivors could testify that Young had claimed he could cure their cancer. The court found that he was not a medical doctor and had purchased his Ph.D. from a diploma mill.7 He is currently facing a three-year prison sentence for two counts of practicing medicine without a license, and he will be retried on six charges of fraud after the original jury deadlocked. He is also being sued for fraud by a woman who claims her treatable stage I cancer progressed to stage IV because she followed his advice instead of accepting conventional treatment.8

A basic understanding of physiology and acid-base balance and what constitutes scientific evidence is enough to dismiss the misinformation about pH—basic understanding that obviously a lot of people lack. That’s a sad commentary on our educational system, and it’s an even sadder commentary on our justice system, which allowed Young to harm so many people before it acted, and then acted so inadequately.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

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