Mind & Body

Is Alkaline Water Actually Good for You?

Human activity hasn't just changed the climate; it's also made the world more acidic. Not only has it brought about acid rain, but the world's oceans have also grown more acidic. In the past 100 years, their pH has dropped from 8.2 to 8.1. In this context, it's no surprise that everything alkaline suddenly seems healthy. Case in point: fancy "ionized" alkaline water. But is this futuristic-sounding water all it's cracked up to be?

What Is Alkaline Water?

Before you understand alkaline water, you need a general understanding of the pH scale, a widely-used measure of acidity. The logarithmic scale runs from 1 through 14, and substances that clock in on the lower end — between 1 and 7 — count as acidic. Meanwhile, substances on the upper half of the scale — between 7 and 14 — qualify as alkaline, or basic.

On a technical level, the pH scale tracks the ions a substance releases when it's dissolved in water. Acids release hydronium ions (basically a positively charged water molecule with an extra hydrogen atom); the lower an acid's pH, the more ions it releases. Because the pH scale is logarithmic, an acid with pH 4 produces 10 times as many hydrogen ions in water than an acid with pH 5, and 100 times more than an acid with pH 6.

Meanwhile, bases release hydroxide ions (a negatively charged water molecule with a missing hydrogen atom) when dissolved in water. Despite the fact that pure water actually contains hydronium and hydroxide ions itself, they cancel each other out. As a result, it has a perfectly neutral pH of 7.

Not so for most water we drink, though. Bottled water is usually slightly acidic, thanks to additives and minerals. Most other beverages, like soda and orange juice, are even more acidic. This makes alkaline water unusual, for good or ill; most alkaline waters sold in stores have a pH of 8 to 10.

Allegedly, this has health benefits. Beyoncé and Tom Brady drink alkaline water, which has been alleged to prevent ailments like hangovers, osteoporosis, and even cancer by keeping our bodies from getting too acidic. But does science back that up? Well ... no.

Related Video: Facts and Myths About Drinking Water Explained

The Self-Sufficient Body

"It's all about marketing," dietitian and epidemiologist Tanis Fenton told the New York Times. In other words, alkaline water is more marketing ploy than scientific phenomenon. Its marketing has been effective, too; from 2014 to 2017, the market for it grew tenfold, making it a $427 million industry. But there's little evidence that it benefits the average person's health.

Really, our own bodies keep us more than healthy as we chug our vaguely acidic modern beverages. We've evolved robust internal mechanisms for regulating our pH levels, because, quite simply, we had to. If our blood isn't at a pH of 7.4, give or take 0.05 or so, we die.

So when you consume a lot of acidic substances, what happens? Basically, you pee out the extra acid. Most urine is slightly acidic, a sign that your renal system — the kidneys, bladder, etc. — is keeping your internal pH under control.

When it comes to alkaline substances, your stomach keeps them from over-alkalinizing your system, too. Though your blood stays at a constant pH of 7.4-ish, your stomach is highly acidic, with a pH of 1.5 to 3.5. pH-wise, your stomach acid neutralizes alkaline substances you ingest — including alkaline water — long before they enter your system.

Alkaline water may have some other fringe benefits, though. For instance, if you have acid reflux, it may help slightly with throat irritation. Then again, the evidence there is inconclusive, and other evidence casts it as risky. In some studies, rat pups that drank alkaline water struggled with more cardiac issues and grew less readily than rat pups that drank regular water.

So overall, alkaline water is probably not worth the extra money, let alone the potential health risks. Normal water, though, is great stuff. We recommend it wholeheartedly!

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Debunk more health myths in "The Truth About Food: Why Pandas Eat Bamboo and People Get Bamboozled" by David L. Katz, MD, MPH. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice March 29, 2019

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