The marketing trend that promotes alkaline water as a product that slows ageing, helps digestion, improves immunity, prevents chronic diseases like cancer, and more is quite an old one. But what’s alkaline water anyway? And does it have any benefits? Let’s explore.
What Does ‘Alkaline’ Even Mean?
When your body breaks down food, the process produces waste. These chemicals (or waste) can be either alkaline or acidic, and is also often referred to as ‘ash’. This ‘bit of science’ was used as the basis for the acid-alkaline theory of disease. The claim was that this acid /alkaline ash can have a direct effect on our health – the acidic ash being disease-causing, the alkaline ash being health-promoting. The hope was that by eating certain foods or drinking certain kinds of beverages like alkaline water, you can change the body’s acid level – also called its pH levels – which in turn can improve health.
To help gauge this, there is the pH scale that measures how acidic or basic (alkaline) something is on a scale of 0 (very acidic) to 14 (very alkaline). Something that is alkaline is on the basic end of the scale, or greater than seven (neutral pH). The pH of regular water is around seven, whereas alkaline water has a higher pH level than regular drinking water (typically eight or nine), with the addition of minerals like calcium, magnesium, and potassium, making it a perfect fit to market as the superior water.
How Did ‘Alkaline’ Become a Diet?
This entire school of thought was picked up by Robert O’Young to whip up the Alkaline Diet, which included alkaline water in its list of elixirs to disease-free longevity. The naturopath went on to publish several books on the topic that have sold millions of copies worldwide with celebrity endorsements from the likes of Victoria Beckham, Elle Macpherson, and Gwyneth Paltrow ensuring its position as a popular diet. It is also worth noting that he was sentenced to jail time in 2017 for illegally treating people at his ranch without any medical training.
What Is the Flaw in This Diet?
The diet per se is not too bad considering it prompts people to include more fruits and vegetables, drink water, and reduce intake of foods high in calories from ingredients like sugar, fat, etc. It is the claims about the mechanism of how alkaline water (or food) works that are widely criticised since it is not supported by evolutionary evidence, human physiology, or any reliable study on humans. The suggested mechanism is flawed because it’s a fact that our body has a tightly controlled inbuilt regulatory system (involving the lungs and kidneys), which keeps the blood pH in the normal range (7.35 to 7.45) – and it is not possible for diet or water to change this.
To reiterate, food and drinks can’t influence the pH of your blood. It is critical for health that the pH of your blood remains constant and can be fatal if untreated – this only happens during certain disease states (e.g., kidney disease) and has absolutely nothing to do with the foods or water you eat/drink every day. Now, food can change the pH value of the urine, but it’s temporary. Eat a large steak and several hours later, your urine will be more acidic as the body removes it from your system. Urine pH is a very poor indicator of overall body pH and general health.
In my opinion, people who promote alkaline water are most likely confused between blood and urine pH. Excreting waste through your urine is one way your body regulates its pH level. It is also interesting to note that the pH levels throughout your body vary – and they need to. Your stomach is acidic (pH 2-3.5) to break down food, while your blood is always slightly alkaline (pH ~7.3-7.4). You don’t need alkaline water to ‘detox’ – your kidneys, liver, and other organs do that for you for free.
To state it explicitly, alkaline water is a scam. While some small low-quality studies have been done (many in test tubes or mice), the claims simply haven’t been backed up by reliable human studies and the evidence for drinking alkaline water to help any health condition just isn’t there. While I can’t comment on specific brands, most so-called alkaline waters are just bottled mineral waters. Just like food, this water could change the pH levels of your saliva or urine – not your blood (thankfully).
Does That Mean Alkaline Water Is Unsafe?
Water that’s naturally alkaline occurs when water passes over rocks – like springs – and picks up minerals, which increase its alkaline level. This type of natural alkaline drinking water is generally considered safe as long as it is clean and potable.
However, many people who drink alkaline water buy alkaline water that’s been through a chemical process called electrolysis. This technique uses a product called an ioniser to raise the pH of regular water. Makers of alkaline ionised water say that electricity is used to separate molecules in the water that are more acidic or alkaline. The acidic water is then funnelled out, leaving you with water that is alkaline in nature.
People also attempt to make alkaline water at home. One way is by using water ionisers that are sold in many large chain stores. Adding baking soda is another way to make water more alkaline. If the water is properly filtered to remove contaminants, ionised and re-mineralised, or purchased from a quality source, there’s no evidence to suggest a limitation on how much alkaline water can be consumed daily. You should use caution with artificial alkaline water, however, which likely contains fewer good minerals than its high pH would have you believe – and may even contain contaminants. The water quality of the original source, before ionisation, is crucial to ensuring contaminants aren’t present in the drinking water.
A 2014 study cautions against drinking water with low mineral content, which is created by reverse osmosis, distillation, and other methods (without additional mineralisation) on a regular basis. Some scientists advise using reverse osmosis to adequately purify water before connecting an alkaline ioniser, which can raise pH and add minerals. The health claims around this aren’t backed by quality research and more research is needed to determine its benefits. So, if you find labelled alkaline water expensive, don’t worry – you’re not missing out on anything! Just drink enough regular water and make sure it’s clean.