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What is pH and why is it important?

pH, or Hydrogen potential, is a term used to indicate the alkalinity (base) or acidity of a substance as ranked on a scale from 1.0 to 14.0. Acidity increases as the pH value decreases, alkalinity increases as the pH value increases. See the graphic below for the pH of some common liquids.



The pH scale measures the logarithmic concentration of hydrogen (H+) and hydroxide (OH-) ions, which make up water (H+) + (OH-) = (H2O). When both types of ions are in equal concentration, the pH is 7.0 or neutral. Below 7.0, the water is acidic (there are more hydrogen ions than hydroxide ions). When the pH is above 7.0, the water is alkaline, or basic (there are more hydroxide ions than hydrogen ions). Since the scale is logarithmic, a drop in the pH by 1.0 unit is equivalent to a 10-fold increase in acidity. So, a water sample with a pH of 5.0 is 10 times as acidic as one with a pH of 6.0, and pH 4.0 is 100 times as acidic as pH 6.0.

Role of pH in Digestion and Illness

The stomach is designed to function at a very low pH. Most foods are acidic and human physiology is geared towards handling mostly acidic intake. The enzymes that process digestion are activated by low pH. Alkaline adjustments to the body would only be recommended in the case of an overly acidic stomach. Furthermore people who consistently ingest antacids such as Tums or others will experience a decrease in the ability of their stomach acid to kill the germs entering their body. This is because the strong alkalinity of these medicines neutralizes the highly acidic and sometimes bothersome stomach acid, which kills food borne bacteria. Normal stomach acid plays an important function in defending the human body against sickness.

High pH or Alkaline Water

A search of the Internet shows several products that produce "alkaline ionized water" with such claims as to help aging and cancer. A quick search of the Medline literature shows 6 references to "alkaline ionized water" all from the same Japanese group. The scientific literature showed that when given to pregnant or nursing rat females and offspring, the animals grew faster. However, they also reported significant cardiac muscle pathology. No other data were presented, certainly none on increased life span or reduced risk of cancer. Any health related claims should be regarded with caution.

Water has very limited ability to buffer against changes in pH. Increases in pH to 9-12 range require very little added base. Although there are those who feel that drinking alkaline water is healthy, there are no proven medical benefits. While alkaline water can neutralize no more than 1 mEq of acid (HCl) - Antacids, which are given to neutralize gastric acid, are capable of neutralizing at least 10 mEq of acid, and contain far more calcium.

Document sources: US EPA; Jacobson, Tilbury, Lantz, Nix, University of Arizona Center for Toxicology

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