Just when you think you've mastered the basics of sports nutrition—lean protein, low-fat, whole grains—you hear a new buzzword or see a segment on the morning talk show about a concept you've never heard of before. For some athletes, the newest nutritional trend might be eating to maintain your body's natural pH levels.
What Are pH Levels and Why Do They Matter?
The pH spectrum ranges from 0, totally acidic, to 14, totally alkaline, with 7 indicating a neutral pH level. Human blood carries a slightly alkaline pH of 7.35 to 7.45, while the stomach is much more acidic—in order to digest food—with a pH of 3.5 or lower.
A pH blood level below 7.35 can cause acidosis, which may depress the central nervous system. Levels below 7.0 can be life-threatening, causing comas and leading to death. Blood pH levels above 7.45 cause alkalosis, a condition which overstimulates the body's nerves. Signs of alkalosis include muscle spasms, nervousness and convulsions, which can also be fatal in extreme cases.
The body's pH level can be affected by two primary factors: foods and liquids that are consumed, and acids released as a result of metabolic activity, including exercise. The end products of this process are called acid or alkaline ash.
In a society saturated with highly processed food and beverage options, which form acids in the body, consuming foods with an alkaline effect can help athletes maintain optimal health, and avoid undue stress on the body's systems.
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Human Physiology and pH Levels
"Your body naturally maintains and balances its pH daily," says Sarah Koszyk, MA, RD, nutrition coach and dietitian. "The foods we eat do not drastically change the pH of our bodies. For example, our urine will adjust in order to regulate our body's pH so we'll always stay within the range of 7.35 to 7.45 in order to stay healthy and balanced. Our bodies are pretty amazing with natural repair and homeostasis."
Some experts argue that prolonged or excessive production of acid can harm the body and contribute to problems such as cancer and arthritis.