Not only is back pain excruciating, but many sufferers can’t even identify the source of their discomfort. According to proponents of an alkaline diet, acidity may be the culprit behind chronic back pain, but is there any merit to this claim?
Indulge me for a moment. I’m going to take you back to your Year 10 chemistry class. I promise I’ll make it brief. Every living organism needs to maintain a certain pH level to survive. Simply stated, pH is a measurement of the acidity or alkalinity of an environment. The pH scale ranges from “0” to “14”, with “0” being the most acidic and “14” being the most alkaline. A pH of “7” is considered neutral (neither acidic nor alkaline). Ideally, the human body falls near the middle of this scale, at a slightly-alkaline 7.4.1 Those touting the benefits of an alkaline diet claim that putting your blood in a more alkaline state can treat and prevent a host of medical conditions, including back pain.
The human body is an amazing machine. Like a large factory, your body constantly works to keep all of its departments in harmonious working order, including the pH department. Believers in an alkaline diet use test strips to regularly monitor their urinary pH. However, it’s important to note that urinary pH varies based on ingested foods, but blood pH remains relatively consistent because the kidneys flush out excess acid, keeping the blood in a slightly-alkaline range (between 7.35 and 7.45).2
Falling out of this slightly-alkalized state, one way or the other, can be fatal. Fortunately, you cannot put your body in this dangerous state through diet, major changes in blood pH only occur in conjunction with certain medicals conditions.2
Timothy Caulfield, Professor of Health & Science Policy at the University of Alberta in Canada recommends we look to science, not celebrities for health advice and proof. He's even written a book called 'Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?' that looks at the culture of taking a celebrities advice over that of medical professionals.
We’ve established that blood pH remains in a desired range despite diet, but that doesn’t mean that alkaline foods can’t improve health. Let’s take a look at some of the most common acidic/alkaline foods:
Clearly, alkaline foods are healthier. Consuming an alkaline diet means eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, while reducing processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and artificial sweeteners. This change will likely result in weight loss, leading to less pressure on the back and reduced back pain. Furthermore, fruits and vegetables help fight inflammation, another culprit behind chronic back pain.
A comprehensive examination of past studies, books, and articles related to an alkaline diet, published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health, noted some evidence that the consumption of alkaline foods may reduce symptoms associated with chronic conditions, including back pain.1 Furthermore, a 2001 study published in the Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology examined the effects of supplementation with alkaline minerals (calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium) in the treatment of lower back pain. 6 This four-week study included 82 back pain sufferers.6
In addition to their usual pain-relieving medications, all participants took a daily alkaline multi-mineral supplement.6 Throughout the study, participants regularly recorded their pain levels using the “Arhus low back pain rating scale” (ARS).7 Researchers noted that 76 of 82 participants achieved a reduction in pain due to supplementation. 6 Though research demonstrates that alkaline multi-mineral supplementation may raise blood pH to the more alkaline end of the pH “safe zone”, researchers also noted that an increase in magnesium levels may be the cause of pain reduction, as magnesium allows for the activation of vitamin D.6 (Vitamin D deficiency is consistently linked to chronic low back pain). 7
While consuming an abundance of alkaline foods or supplements may result in a slightly more alkaline blood pH, your body will always stay between a pH of 7.35 and 7.45.2 It is unlikely that this slight change is the catalyst behind pain reduction. However, that doesn’t mean an alkaline diet is without merit. Alkaline foods are generally much healthier than acidic foods, leading to weight loss and reduced inflammation.