On September 11th, Dr. Joseph Mercola published an article on alkaline water titled: If You Fall for This "Water Fad" - You Could Do Some Major Damage. Amazingly, Dr. Mercola's newsletter generated hundreds of emails to the Baseline of Health Foundation virtually overnight -- all from people who were confused by his newsletter and were looking for clarity.
Let me begin by stating unequivocally that I am a fan of Dr. Mercola and frequently recommend his newsletter. Also, I normally don't "take on" the other alternative health newsletters since we're all fighting the same fight...although on occasion from a slightly different vantage point. But this particular article deviates sharply from my point of view on several key points. And since the topic it addresses is so fundamental and so important to health and has already generated hundreds of queries, I need to address it.
Effectively, Dr Mercola's position on alkaline water and water ionizers can be summed up in the following statement from his newsletter, "It is my impression that the scientific justification for these water systems is absent and these consumers have merely fallen under the spell of a skilled marketer who selectively misused pseudoscientific information, and twisted it around to scare them into buying their product."
That's a very strong statement, and it certainly calls into question the motives and ethics of a number of "non marketers" who believe in the value of water ionizers and drinking alkaline water, people who do not collect any money for supporting their use. Is it fair to brand them all as pseudoscientific spell binders? I don't think so, and it's one of the key reasons I felt the need to write this newsletter. In fact, in some ways, Dr. Mercola's concerns are surprising, and his objections actually un-Dr-Mercola-ish. Also, it should be noted that in the end our recommendations concerning alkaline water don't differ that much at first glance. However, when it comes to the effect of pH on health, little differences matter hugely. With that in mind, let's take a look at Dr. Mercola's concerns about alkaline water one at a time to see how he arrived at his conclusion as stated above and to see how those concerns stand up.
Dr. Mercola explains the theory
According to Dr. Mercola, "the theory behind alkaline water [at least according to the marketers] is, in a nutshell, that alkaline (ionized) water is a powerful antioxidant with surplus electrons that can "mop up" the dangerous free radicals you have coursing through your veins. Marketers claim alkaline water can correct excess acidity in your tissues, which can then prevent or reverse cancer, arthritis, and other degenerative diseases."
As stated, Dr. Mercola's summary is mostly true, but does leave out a couple of "game changing" points. First, how alkaline is the water we're talking about? We'll return to that later, but for now, just keep in mind that too much of anything can be bad for you -- even healthy things. Drink too much water of any kind after intense exercise and you might suffer from "water intoxication," which in rare circumstances can actually be fatal. Too much vitamin D or A are toxic. Likewise, selenium, zinc, and iron are all essential at low levels but are highly toxic at high levels. Again, too much of anything can be bad for you. So what does this mean in regard to alkaline water? It means that while a certain amount of alkalinity in water may be beneficial, too much alkalinity can be toxic. The key, of course, is knowing what that point is and how long you can drink water at any given pH.
Second, Dr. Mercola talks about the "claims" of marketers. However,if you base objections around the claims of marketers, you can throw out virtually any health alternative. For example, Dr. Mercola sells açaí on his site. But a quick search on the net shows that marketers claim that the "benefits of Açaí are enormous. The antioxidant qualities mean that it fights cancer, slows down aging, and helps with cardiac functioning and blood circulation. This is helpful for those suffering from any kind of inflammation or arthritis." In addition to being illegal because they amount to medical claims, these claims sound a lot like the claims for alkaline water that so concern Dr. Mercola.
But just because marketers make outrageous claims for açaí, doesn't negate the actual benefits the berry extract provides, which is why Dr. Mercola sells it. And likewise, just because marketers make silly claims for alkaline water doesn't mean that it doesn't have real benefits, and therefore, we shouldn't throw the baby out with the alkaline bath water so to speak.
Dr. Mercola goes on to say, "In truth, there are very, very few legitimate scientific studies about the effects of alkaline water on human health."
But can't the same thing be said for the açaí extract that Dr. Mercola sells? In fact, there are almost no studies supporting the claims of açaí enthusiasts -- legitimate or otherwise. In fact, Dr. Mercola acknowledges as much when he says, "Preliminary studies from the University of Florida show açaí's promise as a food that can boost your health and slow the signs of aging -- and is being studied for its potential to reverse chronic health issues." Think about that for a moment. All that Dr. Mercola can offer in support of açaí is one single "preliminary" study. In his article on alkaline water, Dr. Mercola says, "Most of the circulating information is distributed by clever marketers, with very little scientific validity to back up their claims." In the end, the question we must ask is: why hold açaí and alkaline water to different standards -- other than the fact the Dr. Mercola sells one and not the other? (Incidentally, if you read or listen to Dr. Mercola's article on acai, you might want to check out my article on antioxidants afterwards, My Dog's Better than Your Dog.)
That said, there is "in truth" far more scientific evidence in support of alkaline water than Dr. Mercola indicates. Yes, most of it involves animal studies, but there are over two dozen of them, which beats açaí hands down. And even the Mayo clinic acknowledges the potential of alkaline water to slow bone loss. Here are a just a handful.
- Selective stimulation of the growth of anaerobic microflora in the human intestinal tract by electrolyzed reducing water
- Acid-base balance and hydration status following consumption of mineral-based
alkaline bottled water
- Enhanced induction of mitochondrial damage and apoptosis in human leukemia HL-60 cells due to electrolyzed-reduced water and glutathione
- Protective mechanism of reduced water against alloxan-induced pancreatic beta-cell damage: Scavenging effect against reactive oxygen species
- Inhibitory effect of electrolyzed reduced water on tumor angiogenesis
- Anti-diabetic effect of alkaline-reduced water on OLETF rats
Another objection to alkaline water that Dr. Mercola has is that "most water ionizers and alkalizers are being marketed by multi-level marketing (MLM) companies with less than stellar ethics" and through which you pay inflated prices.
And yes, some MLM companies are guilty of both things. But MLM companies also pioneer valid health concepts that the mainstream is not yet ready to accept, and because of that, they often take a number of arrows for the rest of us. As the old saying goes, "Pioneers are the ones with the arrows in their backs." For example, the Shaklee Corporation began marketing the first "natural" vitamin supplements in the early 1900's before the concept of vitamins of any kind was really understood. MLM companies also led the way on environmentally safe cleaners and the green super foods. Both spirulina and blue green algae were introduced en masse through MLM companies. Again, you don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water.
In his article, Dr. Mercola says, "The concept of the acidity or alkalinity of your body - or of water - is based on the pH scale. So it's necessary to have a basic understanding of what pH is… PH is simply a measure of the concentration of hydrogen ions… the lower [a liquid's] pH, the more free hydrogen ions it has" and the more acid it is.
And that is absolutely correct, if you summarize the concept "simply." But in fact, there's another way of looking at pH that opens up one of the major benefits of alkaline water to our understanding. Hydrogen ions tie up oxygen. That means that the more acid a liquid is, the less available the oxygen in it.
Every cell in our body requires oxygen for life and to maintain optimum health. Combine that with what we know about hydrogen ions, and we see that the more acid the blood (the lower its pH), the less oxygen is available for use by the cells. Without going into a discussion of the chemistry involved, just understand that it's the same mechanism involved when acid rain "kills" a lake. The fish literally suffocate to death because the acid in the lake "binds up" all of the available oxygen. It's not that the oxygen has gone anywhere; it's just no longer available. Conversely, if you raise the pH of the lake (make it more alkaline), oxygen is now available and the lake comes back to life. Incidentally, it's worth noting that cancer is related to an acid environment (lack of oxygen) -- the higher the pH (the more oxygen present in the cells of the body), the harder it is for cancer to thrive.
Understanding this is important for two reasons: (1) it reveals one of the primary benefits of alkaline water -- more "available" oxygen in the system and (2) it explains why alkaline water helps fight cancer, which we'll talk more about later.
Dr. Mercola's recommendations
"So, what are the recommendations for optimal drinking water pH? The WHO has published a nearly-600 page document called ‘Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality.' In this voluminous tome, you would expect to find everything you'd ever want to know about your drinking water, right? Well, everything EXCEPT a pH recommendation - there are no health-based guidelines for pH! They state that pH usually has "no direct impact on consumers." …Most likely the optimal pH of the water you were designed to drink is somewhere between 6.5 and 7.5."
Is Dr. Mercola really basing his recommendation for water pH on the World Health Organization Guidelines? I did not realize that he was such a fan of the WHO. Based on his articles such as The FORBIDDEN Truth About WHO's 2009 ‘Pandemic' and Tamiflu: Kids Increasingly Immune to Its Effects and WHO Advisor Secretly Pads Pockets with Big Pharma Money, he seems to be consistently discounting the WHO as a reliable arbiter of health advice and, in fact, frequently counters their advice with recommendations of his own. For example, Dr. Mercola directly contradicts WHO's recommendation to get vaccinated for Swine flu. I have no problem with that. In fact, that was good advice and matched my recommendation on Swine flu vaccinations. So why now is the WHO such a reliable authority when it comes to drinking alkaline water? What makes them such a reliable authority on this issue -- other than that they agree with Dr. Mercola?
Dr. Merocla spends a section of his report talking about the optimal pH for plants and fish and how that might relate to humans. "Although the research is clear that alkaline water has detrimental effects on plants and animals, there are not many studies with humans…An ecological study in the Netherlands found that an influx of alkaline water led to the demise of a native plant called Stratiotes aloides L… If you are a gardener, you can view a helpful illustration of the environmental effects of pH in your own garden. If your pH is low, your hydrangea produces pink flowers, but if your pH is high, you'll get blue flowers."
In these statements, Dr. Mercola implies that all life does better in a slightly acidic environment, but this is far from the truth. First of all, for that to be true, you would have to ignore all of the studies I cited earlier that demonstrate the benefits of alkaline water for animals. And then, of course, you have to ignore the ocean, the mother of all life, which has an average pH of about 8.1. Unfortunately, one of the problems associated with increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is that it is is combining with the ocean water to form carbonic acid, which is steadily lowering the pH of the world's oceans, with potentially catastrophic effects to a wide variety of ocean life (e.g., coral reefs an shellfish). The bottom line is that if you're going to look to nature to make a point about optimal pH, then you have to look at all nature to get a balanced picture.
And when you're talking about human pH, the one number that stands out over all others, because it is so critical -- a change of a couple of tenths of a point in either direction could be fatal -- is blood. The ideal pH for blood sits at about 7.4, slightly alkaline -- not acidic.
"There has been a great deal of debate about battling cancer by making your body alkaline. This has become a focus of interest as cancer rates have skyrocketed (along with many other chronic, debilitating diseases), while our bodies have become more acidic from our processed-food diets. The scientific research about the benefits of alkalinity is by no means conclusive…There are some scientific studies that really argue against alkalinity, at least with respect to preventing or treating cancer.
"Consider the research by Robert Gilles, who has studied tumor formation and acidity. According to Gilles, tumors, by their very nature, make themselves acidic - even in an alkaline cellular structure. In other words, they make their own acidity."
"Scientists who are in the process of developing prototypes for potential new anticancer agents that selectively kill tumor cells by interfering with the regulation of intracellular pH, have found that alkaline treatments do NOT have the desired effect - but strongly acidic treatments do.
"Talk about fighting fire with fire - they are fighting acid-loving cancer cells with acid!
"LESS alkalinity inside a cancer cell seems to be what you want, not more.
"So, all of those ionizer salesmen promising alkaline water will lower your cancer risk are completely clueless when it comes to what the scientific research actually shows.
Well, the above section from Dr. Mercola's article is certainly shocking, and speaks strongly against the use of alkaline water when it comes to cancer -- or not. First of all, Dr. Gilles, cited by Dr. Mercola, actually comes to a quite different conclusion than Dr. Mercola seems to imply. To quote from the same study Dr. Mercola cites:
"Because the intracellular pH of cells in tumors remains neutral-to-alkaline, acidity of the interstitial space will increase resistance to many chemotherapies, based on a reduced partitioning of weakly basic chemotherapeutic drugs into the relatively alkaline cells…A large acid-outside pH gradient can exert a protective effect upon the [cancer] cell from weak-base drugs such as anthracyclines and vinca alkaloids, which have pKa values of 7.5 to 9.5. Recently, it has been shown that reversal of the tumor pH gradient with bicarbonate can improve the therapeutic efficacy of doxorubicin (pKa =7.6), which is one of the most widely prescribed antineoplastic agents used in the treatment of breast cancer."
In other words, Dr. Gilles is saying the introduction of alkalinity into a cancerous environment is beneficial, not harmful. And in fact, the use of alkaline pH to fight cancer has a long history:
To be fair, Dr. Mercola mentioned the existence of such studies supporting the use of alkalinizing treatments for cancer, but dismisses them as inconclusive and deems them unworthy of even referencing. On the other hand, once you remove the Gilles study from Dr. Mercola's arguments, since it actually contradicts his conclusions, you're left with one single study cited by Dr. Mercola on which to base the astonishing conclusion: "LESS alkalinity inside a cancer cell seems to be what you want, not more." Someday, that statement may indeed turn out to be true, but not today -- not even close.
Dr. Mercola then makes an even more astonishing reference to support his argument that acidity is good for fighting cancer and alkalinity is bad. He states, "Even more interesting is a 2005 study by the National Cancer Institute, which revisits the use of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) to treat cancer. They found that, in pharmacologic doses administered intravenously, ascorbic acid successfully killed cancer cells without harming normal cells. This is yet another example of cancer cells being vulnerable to acidity, as opposed to alkalinity."
To put it simply, the above statement does not make logical sense.. If we were to take Dr. Mercola's argument at face value, that the natural health benefits of ascorbic acid are merely the result of its acidity, not its unique molecular structure, then Linus Pauling would be all wrong, as would virtually everyone in the alternative health field. We could theoretically pop any acid pills such HCL digestive pills and receive all the same anticancer benefits of vitamin C. In fact, taken to its "illogical" conclusion, we might determine that acid reflux disease prevents cancer since it dumps more acid into the system, and that, of course, is nonsense. But even beyond that, it also should be noted that implying that ascorbic acid increases the body's acidity level flies in the face everything published concerning the connection of diet to body pH. As anyone who studies the pH issues associated with diet knows, ascorbic-acid, citrus-based fruits are known to actually alkalinize the body, not acidify it -- which totally turns Dr. Mercola's argument on this particular point upside down.
Dr. Mercola then concludes this section on alkalinity and cancer by stating, "The bottom line is that alkaline water isn't cancer's magic bullet."
That may or may not be true, but nothing presented by Dr. Mercola so far comes close to proving the point. In fact, once you strip away the failed arguments and references, all you are left with is a personal opinion expressed by Dr. Mercola, with no facts or studies that actually support it.
Balance is Key
Dr. Mercola then says, "As is true with many things, in the end it's a matter of balance. Water that is too acidic or too alkaline can be detrimental to human health and lead to nutritional disequilibrium. This was demonstrated in a Swedish well water study, which found both pH extremes to be problematic. Your body simply was not designed to drink highly alkaline water all the time. So I believe it's best to be VERY careful when it comes to something as foundational as the water you drink on a daily basis. If you get it wrong, you could really cause yourself some major damage."
On this point, we are in total agreement. When it comes to health, extremes are bad. Or to paraphrase Paramahansa Yogananda, "Too much of a good thing is bad. No matter how healthy a thing is, if you overindulge in it, disease will result instead of health."
"It makes sense that you are designed to drink water that occurs naturally, which excludes alkaline water with pH levels of 8 and above."
I don't disagree with the essence of Dr. Mercola's thought here -- with one big caveat. If you're eating well and living cleanly, then yes, you want to drink water with a naturally occurring pH only slightly above neutral. However, if you are eating the typical Western diet, high in meat, grains, sodas, and sugars that acidify the body, then you have a different problem. Your pH balance is now so far out of normal that you must go beyond normal in the other direction to counter it. My recommendation for daily drinking water pH is about 7.5 to 8 -- depending on how acid forming your diet is. Long term consumption of higher pH water should be reserved for special circumstances.
At this point, Dr. Mercola introduces a perplexing argument, "And if you drink alkaline water all the time, you're going to raise the alkalinity of your stomach, which will buffer your stomach's acidity and impair your ability to digest food as low stomach acid is one of the most common causes of ulcers. This can open the door for parasites in your small intestine, and your protein digestion may suffer. It also means you'll get less minerals and nutrients over time - in fact, some of these health effects can already be seen in hard-core alkaline water drinkers."
First of all, let's be clear here. Stomach acid has a pH of about 0.8-1.0. That means that any water you drink, whatever its acidity level, is going to dilute your stomach acid and interfere with digestion if you drink it with your meals, which is why I constantly admonish people not to drink more than 4 ounces of liquid with your meals. The bottom line, then, is that if you're drinking water with your meals, any difference in pH is virtually irrelevant -- digestion will suffer. If you're drinking water between meals, then it has no effect on digestion as it passes through the stomach quickly and on into the small intestine, where an alkaline environment is preferred. Keep in mind, your pancreas pours sodium bicarbonate into your duodenum to convert the acidic "slurry" coming from your stomach into an alkaline "slurry" with a pH of about 8.0. Which brings up the question, why did Dr. Mercola only talk about the acidic pH of the stomach when discussing digestion and not the alkaline pH of the intestinal tract?
Dr. Mercola, now movcs on to a new point, "Alkalinity is also potentially a problem because it is antibacterial, so it could potentially disrupt the balance of your body's beneficial bacteria."
Again, the pH of a healthy intestinal tract is slightly alkaline, not acidic, so I'm not sure which beneficial bacteria he's talking about that would benefit from an acid environment. But more to the point, acidity kills bacteria. That's the reason your urine is slightly acidic, not alkaline -- to kill any E. coli that might make their way into your urinary tract. That means that contrary to what Dr. Mercola says, raising the pH of your urine doesn't kill bacteria in your urinary tract, it allows them to thrive. Actually, a point that Dr. Mercola could have made is that if you make yourself too alkaline, to the point where your urine is no longer acidic (something a number of people who are "into" drinking alkaline water actually try and do), you are more likely to have urinary tract infections. Amusingly, even though the fact that acidity (not alkalinity) kills unwanted bacteria in your urinary tract contradicts his statement immediately above, it actually speaks in support of Dr. Mercola's ultimate position -- that drinking too much high alkaline water can be detrimental to your health. However, it takes exessive consumption of high alkaline water to change the pH of your urine.
Dr. Mercola now begins to make clear his position on what represents the ideal pH for drinking water, "What you want is pure water - water that is clean, balanced, and healthful, neither too alkaline nor too acidic. Ideally, the pH of your water should be close to 7, which is neutral.
"Somewhere between 6 to 8 is likely fine."
This actually represents quite a spread. Keep in mind that the pH scale is logarithmic. That means that each 1-unit change in pH represents a ten-fold change in hydrogen ion concentration. In other words, 6.0 water is one hundred times more acidic than 8.0 water. Fortunately, Dr. Mercola subsequently provides a more specific recommendation.
"And some of the most healthful waters in the world - that emerging from mountain springs - are actually acidic in the range of 6.5. and would absolutely be my preference if it were readily available."
Well, here we have a definitive statement from Dr. Mercola on the optimum pH for drinking water, and as it turns out, it's nowhere near as open ended as the 6.0 to 8.0 range he mentioned previously. It's very specific and slightly acidic. Unfortunately, the context within which it's provided is highly misleading. Yes, some mountain springs are slightly acidic, depending on the minerals naturally occurring in them. But the most famous mountain waters in the world, waters renowned for their healing properties, are highly alkaline. I'm referring to the waters coming down from the Himalayas, and specifically to the waters of the Hunza valley, which have a pH that runs between 9 and 11.
At this point, I'm no longer quoting Dr. Mercola.
As I said at the beginning of this newsletter, I'm a fan of Dr. Mercola. And, for the most part, we share many of the same opinions. Even in areas where we disagree, such as in terms of what constitutes a healthy diet, the disagreement is less than it first appears. Although Dr. Mercola believes in the virtues of meat and dairy more than I do, we are at least in agreement as to what form they should take if you eat them.
- Grass fed
- Raw for dairy
But on this particular issue, alkaline water, his article totally missed the mark and contains a number of inaccuracies. Eventually, his ultimate position, that slightly acidic water is preferable to any form of alkaline water when it comes to drinking, may one day be proven true. But not today.
Therefore based on a preponderance of the evidence as it exists today, I would recommend drinking slightly alkaline water (7.5-8.0) on a daily basis, and reserve higher alkaline water for special occasions. Now, when compared to Dr. Mercola's preferred pH of 6.5, it appears to be a rather insignificant difference -- one point on the pH scale, centered around neutral at 7.0. But appearances can be deceiving. The pH scale logarithmic. In fact, technically, pH is the negative logarithm of the hydrogen ion concentration. That means that for each 1-unit change in pH, the hydrogen ion concentration changes ten-fold. In other words, 6.5 water is ten times more acidic than 7.5 water -- and 100 times more acidic than 8.5 water.
The bottom line is that although the difference between our recommendations may at first appear small, they are, in fact, not. I believe that the evidence strongly supports drinking water on a daily basis that is upwards of 50 times more alkaline than Dr. Mercola recommends -- with higher levels reserved for special occasions. As to how you get that water, that's up to you. Water ionizers, although expensive, certainly do the trick.
In conclusion, I am still a fan of Dr. Mercola and still recommend his website to my readers. But as for this particular article, I believe that Dr. Mercoal missed the mark; it simply does not rise to his usual high standards. I am sure he will do better next time. In any case, I encourage you to read his article, If You Fall for This "Water Fad" - You Could Do Some Major Damage, yourself and make your own assessment.