What Is pH? A measure of acidity and alkalinity. From the French pouvoir hydrogene, pH describes hydrogen ion activity. A pH of 1 is the most acidic, 7 is neutral, and 14 is the most alkaline. Everything you eat or drink affects your pH balance.
Remember pH strips? They were handed out in grade school science class. Seeing the colors change was fun--if not as diverting as building a potato clock--but it was tough to comprehend how a funky little acronym could be such a vital key to good health.
"Paying attention to acid-alkaline balance is one of the most crucial ways you can affect your health status," says Susan Lark, M.D., co-author of The Chemistry of Success: Six Secrets of Peak Performance. "It impacts immunity, digestion, bone strength, symptoms of joint disease, hormones, and the function of essential internal organs." What's more, a spoonful of alkalinity can also lessen the severity of colds, sore throats, and other winter woes.
The balance of acidity and alkalinity in your body allows essential chemical reactions to take place in cells and tissues.
Not all parts of the body are equal, pH-wise: For example, the stomach, with its fluctuating digestive juices, is more acid than the brain or blood, which are slightly alkaline (at about 7.1 and 7.4, respectively). The balances are maintained via various proteins, minerals, and kidney and lung functions. In addition, everything you eat or drink affects pH balance, for good or for ill. Even breathing regulates pH: Inhaling brings alkaline oxygen into the system, and exhaling removes acidic carbon dioxide.
To function properly, cells need to be slightly alkaline; most Americans, however, suffer from an abundance of acidity. Stress, medications, illness, and highly strenuous exercise promote acid production; so do many of the foods favored in the typical Western diet. Fatty, high-protein fast foods like cheeseburgers and french fries trigger the stomach to secrete extra amounts of acidic digestive juices. Refined flour and sugar (in this instance, the bun and ketchup) reduce to acid compounds once they're metabolized. And that extra-large cola is extremely acidic. Considering that too much acidity is associated with many degenerative diseases, from colitis to rheumatoid arthritis, this "value meal" isn't such a bargain after all.
Age is also a contributing factor. "Acid-alkaline balance is relatively easy to maintain when we're young and our regulating mechanisms are in good working order," explains Lark. "But with each passing decade, starting in our 40s or even earlier, the efficiency of our buffering systems begins to decline." According to Lark, only 6 percent to 8 percent of the population produce naturally high alkaline levels well into old age; these people have excellent digestive function and lung capacity, and are more likely to be energized and healthy as the years go by.
To find out whether your system tends to be acid or alkaline, answer Lark's questionnaire (below) or self-test your saliva or urine using pH test paper. If you're troubled by over-acidity, rebalance your diet to include more alkaline foods.