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pH Mythology:
Separating pHacts from pHiction

The internet is a cornucopia of facts, some true and some “alternative” (in other words, lies). One topic that is particularly plagued by misinformation is pH. People are restricting their diet, buying alkaline water, testing their urine with pH test strips, and buying into bogus cancer cures, all on the basis of false pseudoscientific claims. Going back to basics will help us distinguish pHacts from pHiction.

A Quick Primer: pH 101
pH Chart

Click image to enlarge

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.4 And 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.”

Skeptic magazine 22.2 (cover)

This column appeared in Skeptic magazine issue 22.2 in 2017. Order this issue.

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. END

About the Authors

Dr. Harriet Hall, MD, the SkepDoc, is a retired family physician and Air Force Colonel living in Puyallup, WA. She writes about alternative medicine, pseudoscience, quackery, and critical thinking. She is a contributing editor to both Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, an advisor to the Quackwatch website, and an editor of sciencebasedmedicine.org, where she writes an article every Tuesday. She is author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon. Her website is SkepDoc.info.

References
  1. http://bit.ly/2j2DQja
  2. http://bit.ly/2le3RgB
  3. http://bit.ly/2mv5l6j
  4. http://bit.ly/2maoo4y
  5. http://bit.ly/2lAthRs
  6. http://bbc.in/2iFxINn
  7. http://bit.ly/2mGNyWu
  8. http://bit.ly/2lYdHjK

21 Comments

  1. BillG says:

    “There’s a sucker born every minute.” P.T. Barnum
    Unfortunately they also die – but not before getting scammed.

    Thank’s Dr. Hall

  2. brad tittle says:

    In my son’s biology class last year they discussed pH of a variety of items. One of the concepts that was put forward was %change. Apologies for pushing this slightly off topic, but %change in pH is a dangerous place to wander.

    The % change in pH for 8.1 to 7.9 = (10^8.1-10^7.9)/10^8.1 => 36%

    THAT IS MORE THAN 1/3… OMG everyone run for the hills.

    I will refrain from mentioning the topic this was connected to in class. I am pretty sure I was able to stabilize the information for my son. I wonder for the rest of the class. Unfortunately, I have seen this metric used in other media outlets alongside “real” scientists.

    I am not a real scientist, nor do I play one on TV.

  3. Buck says:

    Recommendations to ignore the quackery are valid.

    The claim that “dietary modification cannot change the acidity of any part of the body except the urine” is false.

    Alcohol and aspirin begin the list…

    See: https://www.healthline.com/health/alcoholism/ketoacidosis

    • Harriet Hall, MD says:

      The link you provided is about ketoacidosis, a special case. The quacks touting pH balance don’t even mention that condition, nor do they talk about avoiding alcohol or aspirin. Mirkin’s claim that dietary modifications do not change the pH of any part of the body except the urine is true in the context in which he was speaking: the dietary modifications recommended by the quacks.

  4. York says:

    Careful consideration of blood pH must include the affects of serum carbon dioxide regardless of which side of this argument you are presenting.

  5. D J K says:

    The Alkaline Diet section.

    First sentence: No, “the alkaline diet” does not “leap wildly.” The PROMOTERS of the diet do. As is, there is no referent for the “they say” in subsequent sentences. Why not simply use proper grammar here?

    Second paragraph: who is speaking here? Is this part of the author’s analysis, or is this still “the alkaline diet” talking? VERY unclear.

    • Harriet Hall, MD says:

      It seems to me that most people with average reading comprehension ability would not be confused or misled by what I wrote. Perhaps other commenters will chime in with their perspective; did anyone else find it “unclear?”

      Apart from grammatical nit-picking, do you have anything to say about the content of the article?

  6. Beth K. says:

    While this is a little bit off-topic, during a cancer scare I had a year ago, I looked at the cancer treatments that are out there, and *paid for by insurance and government programs*, I found a lot of woo, a lot of caveat emptor, and a lot of programs that at first appear legitimate as they are clinics run by actual physicians. They cost a lot, and offer things which are unlikely to have any effect or could not possibly help.

    Moreover, some of these claim to be able to test whether or not you have cancer using dubious methods. So, my take from that was that a lot of the people who came to them, were diagnosed by them, and subsequently cured did not have cancer in the first place.

    I left that with a very uneasy feeling, knowing that it was moderately likely that I would be offered treatments which are proven not to work or unproven.

    Fortunately, I went for a second opinion from a physician who re-diagnosed me with a common bacterial infection and treated it with antibiotics. Someone else might not be so fortunate.

    It irks me that our scarce healthcare dollars and individual savings is going for these quack cures that do not treat or cure anything.

    • Avital Pilpel says:

      It is a common tactic by quacks to “diagnose” people with a dread disease they do not have and then “cure” them. It’s an efficient sales technique which creates loyal, thankful customers for the crank who “saved their life”.

  7. Janet says:

    I live with a husband who is totally caught up in pseudo-science. He is buying and drinking alkaline water. He believes that if you write love and compassion on the plastic outside of a water container that it will transmit into the water. He believes in “energy medicine” and wants me to go to a 3-day conference. I declined. He spends thousands of dollars on “cures”, books, courses. He just had a tooth extracted because it had an old root canal and, of course, he believed root canals contain toxins. I could go on and on. It is tiring, expensive, heartbreaking at times. He finally had a pacemaker put in after many scares. Each time he said that he was better now because of some little blue bottle of liquid he had been given. He argued with the doctor about the antibiotic IV that had to be administered during the surgery and almost backed out at the last minute. The toll that this takes on marriages has got to be huge. I am solidly science based in my thinking making it all the harder.

    • Avital Pilpel says:

      Of course root canals have toxins, such as metal. So do your shoe soles or your computer. But you do not friggin’ eat any of them, a fact the quacks neglect to mention.

  8. Barbara Harwood says:

    The ciet that is recommended sounds suspiciously like what is now being promoted for good health. They seem to promote a vegan diet which some people actually like, but there have been problems that go with it, such as a lack of certain nutrients. We cannot eat without killing something, but just because a plant is not cute and cuddly does not mean that it is unable to feel pain.

    • Avital Pilpel says:

      Well, the lack of nervous system or a brain is a rather good indication plants cannot feel pain, or feel anything for that matter.

  9. Don Heppner says:

    Thanks Harriet much appreciated.

  10. Ralph Livingston says:

    Why do people, (who would never take their car to anyone but a certified technician) take health advice from anyone, regardless of their education or their profit motive?

  11. Andre says:

    My father was an M.D. and he died of pancreatic cancer 5 years ago. After being diagnosed he tried the ‘alkaline diet’ because people pressured him and he decided that he might as well try it.

    He spent more than a month feeling miserable from having to eat baking soda every day and not being able to eat what he was used to. Eventually he decided that it wasn’t helping him so he quit it.

    If anyone still recommends this ‘alkaline treatment’ to cancer patients, I’ll only say that you’re only making these people suffer even more by adding unneeded discomfort and stress to their lives.

  12. Craig says:

    What’s going on? I noticed that the Amazon add for books at the end of the article is promoting the same ridiculous “pH diets” that the author takes pains to debunk. Where is the editorial control?

  13. Mary Goetsch says:

    When I was a Registered Dietitian 39 years ago, hospitals had therapeutic diets called “acid-ash diet,” “alkaline ash diet,” which restricted foods “they” thought would significantly change G.I. tract pH. The menus were horrible, needless to say; cooks made them even more unappetizing because they hated ruining good food and the disregard of the concept of appetizing meals. The cooks were right on in their displeasure of these diets. I couldn’t give my opinion at the time, but President Reagan did us a service by cutting funding for many hospital nutrition programs (part of Diagnostic Related Groups cuts for most professional services in medical settings.) This was in 1983 and I have not worked as a nutritionist since! Halleluia, I can add.

  14. Avital Pilpel says:

    The main risk of the Alkeline diet seems to be starvation, as there does not seem much left to eat. More seriously, if someone eats more fruits and vegetables and less lard and hard liquor they are likely to feel better, but surely this has nothing to do with the food’s pH.

  15. Majorityofone says:

    I work in the medical field and I’ve lost count of how many patients I’ve had to explain to the difference between arteries and veins and no, I’m not in a pediatric field! Our citizens are uneducated about their own bodies and anatomy so imagine trying to understand how medicine and treatments work. Is it any wonder so many people fall for this stuff? All the charleton has to do is make something sound common sensical and then rake in the money.

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