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Pricey Alkaline Waters Aren't Doing Much for Your Health, Experts Say

Walk into any Los Angeles establishment that sells premium bottled waters and you'll see alkaline waters touted. And it's not just in bottles — alkaline water can be found flowing from drinking fountains at the gym, frozen and blended into smoothies at juice bars and percolating over low-acid coffee in restaurants and cafes.

In fact, Los Angeles water sommelier Martin Riese says one of the most frequent questions people ask when perusing the water menus he creates for the Patina Restaurant Group is, "Which water is alkaline?"

Riese says he's not surprised. "In L.A., you always hear of health and youth. Everybody thinks alkaline water is the fountain of youth."

What is Alkaline Water?

Alkaline water is simply water that ranks high on the pH scale measuring acidity and alkalinity. Water can become alkaline as it seeps through rocks, picking up minerals such as calcium and magnesium. Alkaline water can also be manufactured in a laboratory by adding minerals to raise the pH level.

Proponents claim that drinking high-pH water slows the aging process, increases energy, boosts immune function and decreases a person's risk of cancer, osteoporosis and other chronic diseases. The theory is that the modern American diet is high in acid-forming foods (such as meat, grains and dairy products) that create an acidic body state and make a person more susceptible to disease. Alkaline water advocates believe that drinking high-pH water will neutralize this acidic state.

"I can feel the difference in my skin and my entire body," says Sepi Shyne, reiki master and owner of Soulillume in Los Angeles, who refills her five-gallon water jugs with alkaline water at A Divine H2O in West Hollywood. Shyne even serves alkaline water to her dogs.


Where is the Proof?

There is scant scientific evidence, however, that drinking alkaline water has any effect on health, other than to temporarily relieve heartburn. (Like the calcium carbonate in antacid tablets, mineral ions in alkaline water can neutralize stomach acid.)

The idea that body pH can be altered like the water in a Jacuzzi — add a little acid to lower pH, a little base to raise it — is a misconception, says Dr. Zhaoping Li, chief of the division of clinical nutrition at UCLA.

Because biochemical reaction rates are extremely sensitive to pH change, the internal fluids of organisms — including humans — are well-protected from even slight shifts in pH. A healthy person's blood pH will always remain close to 7.4 (which is slightly alkaline).

"With all those systems working together [to maintain] blood pH, it doesn't matter what kind of water you drink — pH is stable in a healthy person," says Li.

An often-heard argument for drinking alkaline water is that the body maintains stability despite an acidic diet by leaching calcium from the bones to neutralize blood pH, eventually resulting in osteoporosis.

Again, says Li, there is no evidence of this.

Several studies have failed to show a relationship between nutrition-related urine acidity and calcium balance or bone fragility.


Some Acidity is Good

And though it's possible to raise stomach pH by drinking alkaline water, Li says this may not be a good idea.

"Acid in the stomach serves to break down food more completely," she says, explaining that the stomach's high acidity helps the body digest meat, as well as absorb minerals such as iron and calcium. The low-pH environment also kills harmful gut bacteria.

As for Riese's water menus, he doesn't highlight alkaline water for one reason: "It's all about the taste." He explains that water's taste is influenced by mineral content more than it is by pH.

"There's nothing wrong with drinking alkaline water, but it doesn't live up to the big promise that companies are making," says Riese, chalking up any perceived benefits from alkaline water to the placebo effect.

Even so, Shyne says she'll continue to drink alkaline water because it simply makes her feel good. "If you like the taste of alkaline water and it makes you feel better, then you'll drink more water and stay more hydrated — and that has a major positive effect on your health."

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