The Greek physician Hippocrates (460-357 BC) recognised that food can potentially heal the body, advocating: “Food should be our medicine and medicine should be our food.” In most traditional medicine systems food plays an integral part and common foods are often used for medicinal purposes.
“Nothing can harm you as much as food, yet nothing can heal you more effectively than food. Eating is so primal an act that it is typically overlooked as a healing and transforming tool,” says nutritionist Lino Stanchich in Power Eating Program: You Are How You Eat.
When we experience health-related issues we may explore any number of therapeutic approaches such as addressing personal relationship problems, changing careers, travelling, physical exercise, counselling and meditation. Eventually, we may come to address our eating habits, which is really the simplest way to effect change.
We all have different eating habits, lifestyles, medical histories and attitudes to food. No single eating plan can serve everyone’s needs, so you need to work out what suits you best. Choosing wholefoods according to whether they are acid forming or alkali forming (alkalising) can have a major influence on healing and maintaining health.
Nutritionist Sybil E. Wander says achieving a healthy acid/alkali balance in the body begins with an understanding that “as long as we are acid our body is in a state of degeneration (catabolic). What we strive for is to build up and regenerate (anabolic), at the same time reducing as many stressors as possible.”1
The body’s pH — what does it mean?
All organic matter on the planet has a pH level, including the human body. pH (potential hydrogen) is a measure of the amount of negative, alkali-forming hydroxyl ions (OH-) as opposed to positive, acid-forming hydrogen ions (H+). In terms of energy, pH is a measure of electrical resistance between positive and negative ions in the body. A pH less than 7 is considered acidic, while a pH greater than 7 is alkaline.
Maintaining the correct pH level in the body is vital. Body fluids, including blood, should be alkaline, with a pH between 4.5 and 7.5. The pH of our blood must remain between 7.35 and 7.45. In the blood, a more acidic pH slows the heartbeat, whereas a more alkaline pH speeds it up.
A matter of balance
The pH level of our internal fluids affects every cell in the body. Extended acid imbalances of any kind are not well tolerated. Indeed, the entire metabolic process depends on a balanced, alkaline internal environment.
Every cell burns fuel to create energy. When this fuel has been burned there is some waste left over. This waste is acidic and is released into the blood for elimination via the lungs (as carbon dioxide) and the kidneys (as urine). In this way, the body regulates its acid level so it doesn’t become dangerously concentrated.
Herman Aihara, a leading educator in Western and Eastern health science, wrote the following in his book Acid & Alkaline (1980): “The condition and constitution of body fluid, especially blood, is the most important factor in our life: that is to say, for our health. In man, organs such as the kidneys, liver, and especially the large intestine throw out waste and toxins and maintain our internal environment in as ideal a condition as possible. However, there is limitation for this. If we eat too much poison-producing foods, or not enough materials which are needed to clear out the poisons, then our internal environment becomes beyond control and away from the correct condition in which our cells can live. The cells become sick and die. Many sicknesses are a function of the body’s attempt to clean up this internal environment. Cancer is a condition in which body cells become abnormal due to the abnormal condition of body fluids.”
According to microbiologist and nutritionist Robert O. Young, a chronically over-acidic pH corrodes body tissue, slowly eating into the 60,000 miles of veins and arteries like acid eating into marble. If left unchecked, it will interrupt all cellular activities and functions, from the beating of your heart to the neural firing of your brain. He suggests the over-acidification of the body is the single underlying cause of all disease.2
There are many factors that create an unhealthy pH level in the body, including stress, certain medications, metabolic and muscular functions and the foods and liquids we consume.
In addition, the effect of exercise can be either alkalising or acid producing. Theodore A. Baroody says in his book Alkalize or Die, “Exercising with good aerobic activity to just before the point of exhaustion creates an alkaline response because of the increased oxygenation. If we exercise past that point, the body releases excess stored acidity.”
He also suggests that physiological and emotional traumas are acid forming and that the more imbalanced the body becomes — physically, mentally and emotionally — the more susceptible we are to viruses, fungi and bacteria.
Choosing more alkalising foods
The body does have an alkali reserve that can neutralise acids. However, this is only a backup system with limited supply, so the more acid-forming foods you eat, the weaker the system becomes. A more alkalising food selection is therefore essential for maintaining a healthy pH balance.
According to Baroody, a diet of 20 per cent acid-forming foods to 80 per cent alkalising foods (1:4) is the ideal. (This ratio depends on the individual and may vary; for example, 1:3 or 1:2.) If you engage in extreme exercise and highly physical activity (which creates acid), this ratio is particularly appropriate. Less active people might handle more acid-forming food at times.
On the website of nutritional consultant Darrell Wolfe is a comprehensive chart listing 114 alkalising foods alongside 77 acid-forming foods and drinks (www.thewolfeclinic.com/acidalkfoods.html). He says, “In general, it is important to eat a diet that contains foods from both sides of the chart. Allergic reactions and other forms of stress tend to produce acids in the body. The presence of high acidity indicates that more of your foods should be selected from the alkalizing group.”
Having studied and practised holistic nutrition and macrobiotics for more than 20 years, I’ve found the feedback from students and clients supports the theory that when you choose more alkalising foods your wellbeing greatly improves.
So eat more vegetables from the land and sea; sip on miso soup daily; drink kukicha twig tea or green tea; enjoy fruits in moderation; include whole grains such as hulled millet and brown rice and protein-rich foods such as beans, legumes and fish; and make sure you have some good essential fats like olive oil and flaxseed oil. The combination of these foods will help you maintain a healthy acid/alkali balance and you’ll feel the benefits within days. And remember that deep breathing alkalises the system!
Acid-forming and alkalising foods
Foods are classified as either acidic or alkaline according to their own intrinsic acidity or alkalinity. However nutritionists often speak of acid-forming and alkali-forming (alkalising) foods, referring to the overall effect of the foods after ingestion. For example, limes with a pH of 1.9 contain strong acid, yet after ingestion they contribute to an alkaline environment. So, strangely enough, acidic foods can reduce body acids.
In fruits and most vegetables, the organic acid (which you can taste in an orange, for example) contains many alkalising elements such as potassium, sodium, calcium and magnesium. Organic acids, when oxidised, become carbon dioxide and water; the alkaline elements remain and neutralise body acid. This is why fruits and most vegetables are considered alkalising foods.
Alkalising elements include calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium and sodium. Acid-forming elements include bromine, chlorine, copper, fluorine, iodine, phosphorus, silicon and sulphur.
A diet high in acid-forming foods such as meat, dairy, grains, high-sugar fruits and bread, plus stress, causes acid wastes to build up in the body. Sugar is a dangerous acid-forming food, as it passes quickly into the bloodstream, creating an acidic condition and leading to mineral depletion, calcium loss and bone weakening. It also weakens the villi of the small intestine, impairing digestion.
It’s commonly thought that high phosphorus and/or phosphoric acid (found in meat and soft drinks) extracts calcium from the bony structures of the body (bones, teeth and nails) in the process of digestion and assimilation. This has a disastrous effect on bone density, leaving bones porous and spongy. When calcium is extracted from the bones, it’s released into the kidneys before it’s excreted, which may result in kidney stone formation.
Bland-tasting foods (for example, flour, fish and grains) are often, though not always, acid forming. When metabolised, they leave sulphuric, phosphoric and hydrochloric acids behind. Fruits that are acidic include cranberries, plums and prunes. Raw tomatoes with seeds are acidic as they sometimes cause acidic reactions such as mouth sores or bumps on the tongue (well-cooked and seeded tomatoes seem more alkalising). Sugar, concentrated sweeteners, starches, grains, flours, fats and most animal protein foods also create acid when metabolised (exceptions are potatoes and kudzu starch). Pasteurised milk and dairy products are seen to be acid forming, as pasteurisation reduces the available (alkalising) calcium. (Raw milk products are alkalising because of their calcium content.)
Most fruits and vegetables, as well as sea vegetables such as dulse, kelp, arame, nori and wakame, are considered alkalising as they are high in buffering minerals (sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium and iron). Salt is also considered alkalising because of its sodium content.
Daily recommended alkalising foods
The following vegetarian foods are alkalising. Others include tamari, shoyu, pickles and condiments such as sea salt, gomasio and furikake.
Miso is a fully fermented paste made from a mix of soybeans and usually one cereal grain. Like yoghurt, it contains live bacteria and enzymes that aid digestion. Miso is highly alkaline and an excellent source of vegetable protein, B vitamins and essential amino acids. There is extensive research into miso’s potential for anti-ageing, detoxifying, aiding digestion and preventing and treating illness (heart disease, cancer and even radiation poisoning).
Sea vegetables such as hijiki, arame, wakame, kombu and nori are high in minerals, vitamins and complex carbohydrates. They aid digestion, benefit the heart and circulatory system and have a stabilising effect on the brain and nervous system. They are a good-quality source of protein and are rich in minerals (especially high in calcium, iron, zinc and iodine) and vitamins A, C and B complex. Small amounts promote healthy hair, nails, bones and teeth.
Sea vegetables assist proper metabolism and weight loss, reduce cholesterol and fat in the blood, stimulate the reproductive organs, act as an antiseptic and detoxify and alkalise the blood.
Originating in China 4000 years ago, umeboshi plums have remarkable medicinal qualities. In Japan, the umeboshi is considered a cure-all for sick children. Paradoxically, the umeboshi’s powerful acidity has a highly alkalising effect on the body. Umeboshi plums are high in protein, vitamin C and minerals such as calcium, iron and phosphorus.
Umeboshi plums enhance the functioning of the liver and kidneys, purify the blood, expel toxins and are antibacterial and antiseptic. They are good for an unsettled stomach, indigestion, the symptoms of too much acid or sweet foods and morning sickness. They also assist in recovery from illness and fatigue (the citric acid metabolises excess sugar in the blood, converting it to energy).
A study in 2002 suggests that a byproduct of the umeboshi could represent a potential new therapeutic agent for cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension (high blood pressure) and atherosclerosis.3
Kukicha twig tea and bancha tea
“Kukicha” is Japanese for twig tea, made from only the twigs and stems of the tea plant. Bancha tea contains some leaves as well as twigs, so it has a slightly higher caffeine content.
Kukicha is roasted in cast-iron cauldrons to lessen its bitterness and tannin. It’s favoured by those who follow a macrobiotic diet. As it contains almost no caffeine, it’s suitable for children and babies. Kukicha twig tea is a digestive aid that helps to neutralise an overly acidic digestive system because it’s high in minerals and low in caffeine. As it contains minimal tannin, it effectively works as a germicide and detoxifier. It’s said the tannin works to detoxify nicotine and absorb and discharge radioactivity.
Considered the “elixir of life” since ancient times, the shiitake mushroom is valued for its immune-boosting properties. Shiitake mushrooms are cultivated in two ways: outdoors on natural hardwood logs or indoors in a climate-controlled environment on artificial logs made of hardwood sawdust and various nutrients.
A good source of nutrients, shiitake mushrooms contain eight essential amino acids, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin C, dietary fibre, enzymes and ergosterol (which can be converted by sunlight into vitamin D). Shiitake mushrooms are effective in regulating blood pressure, glucose and insulin and reducing cholesterol. They can be used in the treatment of chronic fatigue and vital infections.
The polysaccharide lentinan in the shiitake may be effective in preventing cancer and treating tumours of the stomach, colon and breast.
A member of the cabbage family, kale is strengthening and warming, with a sweet and slightly bitter/pungent flavour. Kale relieves lung congestion and supports the stomach, liver and immune system. Kale juice is used medicinally for treating stomach and duodenal ulcers. Kale contains lutein and zeaxanthin, which protect the eyes from macular degeneration, and indole-3-carbinol, which may protect against colon cancer. It’s also a good source of chlorophyll, calcium, iron and vitamins A and C.
Watercress contains vitamins A and C, calcium and iron. Related to the mustards, watercress is one of the oldest known edible plants. Greek, Roman and Persian soldiers ate it regularly to prevent scurvy. In Chinese medicine it’s known as a cooling food. Watercress is a pungent, stimulating herb that clears toxins and is useful for gallbladder complaints and rheumatism.
Sandra’s alkalising miso soup (serves 4-5)
4-5 shiitake mushrooms
10cm wakame sea vegetable
1 onion, diced
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 carrot, cut into small cubes
1 cup greens (kale, bok choy, watercress)
200-250g tofu, 1cm cubes
3-4 tbsp miso, dark (hatcho, mugi, genmai or kome)
1 spring onion, chopped
Soak the shiitake mushrooms for at least 30 minutes in 2 cups of warm water (better still, soak them overnight). Strain and retain the soaking water. Discard the stems, then chop. Soak the wakame in water for 10 minutes. Strain then chop into small pieces after discarding the central stem. In a soup pot, sauté the onion in the sesame oil until transparent. Add the shiitake and mix. Add 5 cups of water (use the 2 cups of shiitake soaking water and 3 cups of unused water) and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Add the (washed) chopped carrot and greens. Simmer for another 5-10 minutes. Add the wakame and tofu and simmer for 1-2 minutes. Remove 1 cup of the stock and dissolve the miso in it. Add this back to the pot, remove from heat and allow to brew for a minute before serving. (Note: Don’t boil the miso!) Garnish with spring onion.
- Sybil E. Wander, “pH Balance is the Key”, New Page Productions Inc, 2003.
- Robert O. Young and Shelley Redford Young, The pH Miracle (Warner Books, 2002) and Sick and Tired? (Woodland Publishing, 2000). See also www.phmiracleliving.com/approach.htm.
- H. Utsunomiya et al, “Fruit-juice concentrate of Asian plum inhibits growth signals of vascular smooth muscle cells induced by angiotensin II”, Life Sciences 72, no. 6 (27 Dec 2002): 659-67.