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Balancing PH Levels In Your Body

Get your PH levels in the right range and keep your biochemical balance in check.

Get your PH levels in the right range and keep your biochemical balance in check. 

Athletes—whether distance runners, Crossfitters, triathletes or otherwise all-around competitors—need the right nutrients to fuel their training and stay healthy. But there’s more involved than eating a healthful meat-veggie-carb-fat mix.

To use that fuel in the most efficient way, athletes should strive for a neutral internal pH, says Nicole Kuhl, a certified clinical nutritionist at Life Span Medicine in Santa Monica, Calif. When in a state of biochemical balance, they will perform optimally, have prolonged stamina and strength, and enjoy better overall health.

“Your pH most determines your biochemical balance,” Kuhl explained. “An athlete’s goal should be to get his or her biochemistry as balanced as possible because when that happens, you have metabolic efficiency. That’s what every competitor wants. If your pH isn’t in the right range, your metabolic processes can’t fire right.”

So how do you balance your pH? By being mindful of what you put in your mouth.

Understanding Ash

Just about everything an individual consumes is converted into energy. Once the nutrients are digested and metabolized by the body, they leave behind an ash that’s either acidic, alkaline or neutral, explained Lisa Suriano, a nutrition and food science expert based in Ridgewood, N.J.

In general, most vegetables and fruits leave behind an alkaline ash; meats, dairy, fats and many processed foods leave behind an acidic ash, Suriano said. Even healthy foods, such as lean meat and cholesterol-lowering oatmeal, can leave behind an acidic ash that needs to be balanced with alkaline dietary options.

“Competitive athletes are always trying to fight muscle fatigue, so most people know to stay hydrated and prevent carbohydrate depletion,” Suriano said. “But acidic pH levels, possibly reaching an acidosis level, will really hinder their performance as well.”

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Signs and symptoms of acidic pH levels include cramping, overall soreness and stiffness, headaches, and even foggy thinking, she said. Human bodies operate optimally when they’re slightly alkaline between 7.35 and 7.45, Suriano said—so athletes have to consume more alkaline foods to reduce acid levels.

However, it’s more complicated than that, Kuhl said.

“When you burn down food into ash, there will be an acidic or alkaline residue, but in the human body there’s something called biochemical individuality,” she said, meaning that each person’s chemical makeup and nutritional needs, are unique. “Two human beings can eat the exact same nutrients or take the exact same medication and have completely opposite responses. For instance, some people who take antihistamines get wired instead of drowsy. This biochemical individuality is not just isolated to medications; it’s even with very healthy foods.”

Mind Your Metabolism

So what does this mean for athletes? To gain a competitive edge and drive their bodies to operate at peak performance, athletes need to understand how their bodies metabolize and assimilate nutrients, and what kinds of residues various foods leave behind.

“It’s like the old saying goes: ‘One man’s food is another man’s poison,’” Kuhl said. “You don’t really know what your type is. You could be eating exactly wrong for balancing your pH.”

Kuhl cited an example of a weightlifter who came to her clinic for help. Though he ate a balanced, low-fat plant-based diet of complex carbohydrates, vegetables, fruits, lean meat and poultry, he felt sluggish and sick and tended toward foggy thinking. When he changed his diet to one centered on meat and fat, he felt like a new man.

“He was very sick and his health was failing,” she said. “He ended up restoring his health by eating a diet that was primarily meat and fat, three times a day—and I’m talking red meat and fat, like coconut oil and saturated fat. He found that if he deviated too far from that, he noticed big changes in all aspects of his health, from digestion and mood to cognition.”

Protein and fat fueled his one-of-a-kind metabolism.

“I see this clinically all the time,” Kuhl said. “I’ve seen some people thrive on vegetarian diets, and others whose health goes down the toilet. According to the old school of alkaline eating, a vegetarian diet would be very alkaline, so therefore people should be balancing out their pH and feeling really good. But I just don’t see that happen in all people.”

What’s Your Type?

To determine an individual’s unique biochemical blueprint so he or she can formulate a customized neutral pH diet, Kuhl recommends athletes connect with a metabolic typing advisor, who can perform a number of tests to determine their type. “You want to work with someone who understands this kind of nutrition,” she advised.

Another option: Do a little research. Kuhl recommends starting with a metabolic typing book by William Wolcott called “The Metabolic Typing Diet.”

“It gives a really good background into this kind of nutrition and emphasizes how important it is to eat in a way that’s suitable for your specific biochemistry,” she said. “There’s a basic questionnaire you can fill out, and it’ll point you in the right direction. It wouldn’t be as accurate as doing a clinical assessment, but it’s going to give you some good insights.

“It’s more complicated than choosing the right foods,” Kuhl said. “You have to know your type.”

Though each person’s nutritional needs are unique, various foods do leave behind an acidic, alkaline or neutral residue in the body, said nutrition experts Nicole Kuhl and Lisa Suriano. The goal, generally, is to keep your shopping list balanced, leaning toward the alkaline side. Following are some acid, alkaline and neutral ash-producing foods:

Acidifying Foods

Grains, beans, legumes, dairy, animal proteins, fats and oils, sugars and sweeteners, coffee, vinegar, alcohol and some nuts.

Alkalizing Foods

Vegetables, fruits (including citrus), plant-based protein, minerals, herbs and spices.


Coconut water, coconut meat, coconut oil.

This piece first appeared in the April 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.