We’ve talked before on the blog about the importance of diet for Lyme disease but this time we’re taking a closer look at the idea that an alkaline diet can help you to fight the infection. Can what you eat really have that much of an impact on your body’s ability to kill Borrelia or is the idea of alkalizing your diet to beat Lyme disease simply a misnomer?
Blood Acidity and the Diet
The human body carries out a complex chemical dance in order to maintain certain pH (potential of hydrogen) levels in the stomach, blood, cells, and in tissues and organs, with the processes of metabolism carefully regulated within specific, small, ranges of acidity and alkalinity. The pH scale goes from 0 (totally acidic) to 14 (totally alkaline/base), and a pH of 7.0 is neutral. Human blood has a pH of between 7.35 and 7.45, whilst stomach acid is usually 1.35 to 3.5, meaning that there is a considerable difference between the two and clearly some effective barriers to keep the two apart.
Stomach Acid and Acidosis
While the stomach requires this acidity to break down the food we eat, including splitting proteins and peptides into individual amino acids, protecting against opportunistic microbes, and releasing minerals and vitamins from bonds within food, there has to be a neutralizing of the acidic contents of the stomach as partially digested matter moves through the gut. To achieve this, the body dumps a load of bicarbonate in with this acidic matter as food exits the stomach and enters the small intestine (specifically in the jejunum and ileum). Those who have had gastric bypass surgery that cuts out this section of the small bowel can have problems arising due to over-acidity in the small intestines and may have to take antacids with meals to prevent damage to the gut.
Buffering Acidity in the Body
When the diet includes an abundance of acidic foods, or an excess of alkaline foods, the stomach may encounter problems with proper digestion, absorption, and elimination of food matter and nutrients. This is, however, considerably more likely to result in localized issues in the gut than it is in systemic issues related to blood and tissue acidity, as the body buffers pH very carefully to maintain stability.
The Skin as an Acidic Barrier to Bacteria
Even the skin has its own optimal pH, falling into the small range of 4 to 6.5, making it slightly acidic as an effective barrier against microbial overgrowth. Individual layers of the skin have a different pH too, with the outermost layers (such as the horny layer) tending to be more acidic pH 4), while the inner layers are closer to neutral.
Acid and Alkali Foods
Foods can be classified as acid-forming or alkalizing, based on whether they contribute hydrogen ions to the body. Alkalizing foods remove hydrogen ions from the body while acid-forming foods add hydrogen ions. It is a mistake, however, to think that all foods that taste acidic to us are acid-forming as many, including citrus, have an alkalizing effect.
An Alkalizing Diet
A diet that is high in saturated fat, simple sugars, sodium, and chloride, and low in magnesium, potassium, and fiber, is somewhat more likely to induce metabolic acidosis, where the body struggles to maintain the optimum pH in the blood and other tissues. Additionally, as we age the body becomes less able to regulate the loss of certain minerals and other buffers of pH through the kidneys, and so the effects of the Standard American Diet (SAD) are likely to be more pronounced.
Maintaining Blood pH
Low-carbohydrate diets with plenty of (plant-based) protein makes it much easier for the body to regulate acid/alkali status in the blood but may result in urinary pH changes and altered excretion of certain minerals and substances like uric acid and phosphate.
The ordinary daily challenges to the pH status of the blood can be met with the release of minerals, such as calcium, as buffers. Calcium, in phosphate or carbonate form, can be pulled from the bones in order to restore blood pH. Over time, significant chronic shortages of calcium in the diet, combined with over-acidity and a number of other factors may result in weaker bones and muscle wasting, whereas healthy calcium intake and a diet that does not create excess acidity may help maintain strong bones and reduce fracture risk.
Evidence of How an Alkalizing Diet Helps Health
A study over three years found that a low-acid diet including plentiful fruits and vegetables and, thus, rich in potassium helped to maintain muscle mass in older men and women (Dawson-Hughes et al., 2008), and other studies have found that alkalizing diets appear to help reduce exercise-induced acidosis and maintain bone density over time (Webster et al., 1993, Frassetto et al., 1997).
So, it appears that an alkalizing diet provides some benefits for bone and muscle health but is it also able to help in cases of infection such as Lyme disease? Could the benefits of an alkalizing plant-based diet actually simple be connected to a plentiful supply of nutrients for healthy metabolism and a reduction in saturated fats, pro-inflammatory substances, and other constituents commonly found in animal foods?
An Alkalizing Diet for Lyme Disease
Proponents of an alkalizing diet for Lyme disease consider the infection to have an acidifying effect on the body, by way of the metabolic residues of bacteria. To measure the effects of diet on pH, such proponents recommend the use of urinary pH test strips and experimenting with food choices to achieve a certain urinary pH. The problem with such an approach is that the careful regulation of the pH in the blood and other tissues can simply result in wide variations in urinary pH and that measuring the pH of urine really tells us very little about how acidic our blood is at any given time.
Bacteria and Lyme Disease Diets
It is true that many bacteria and parasites do better in an acidic environment and that a blood pH over 7 will make it more difficult for Lyme disease bacteria and other microbes to survive. These bacteria try to influence their environment by producing toxic metabolites to lower pH, while the body itself is trying to maintain a more neutral acid/alkali status. A diet that helps the body to counteract acidosis by providing more alkalizing foods may, therefore, lead to a faster resolution of infection and counteract symptoms of bacterial acidosis.
Lyme Disease Diet Foods
The concept of an alkalizing diet to beat Lyme disease may appear complex and difficult when already struggling with health, mobility and, perhaps, cognitive issues of Lyme disease. However, such a diet is far from complex, based instead on fresh fruits and vegetables, limited or no animal products (meat, fish, poultry, or dairy), and an avoidance of simple carbohydrates from refined foods. A wholefood plant-based diet is almost always an alkalizing diet, especially where it includes foods with very low potential renal acid loads (PRALSs) such as:
- Cucumber (-0.8)
- Broccoli (-1.2)
- Tomato (-3.1)
- Celery (-5.2)
- Spinach (-14.0)
- Grape juice (unsweetened) (-1.0)
- Orange juice (unsweetened) (-2.9)
- Apples (-2.2)
- Apricots (-4.8)
- Banana (-5.5)
- Blackcurrants (-6.5)
- Raisins (-21.0).
Not all plant-foods are alkalizing however, with walnuts and peanuts having PRALs of 6.8 and 8.3 respectively. Compared to the PRALs of egg yolks (23.4), parmesan (34.2), processed plain cheese (28.7), trout (10.8), and corned beef (13.2), these are still quite low.
Foods to Avoid in Lyme Disease
Making sure to include plenty of the alkalizing foods from the list above, avoiding most or all animal products, and eating a variety of grains rather than simply relying on rice, oats, and refined flour pasta products, appears to offer a simple way of reducing acid load and giving the body a good opportunity to more easily manage pH levels. Diet alone is not going to beat Lyme disease but it will certainly make it easier for the body to fight bacterial infection, reduce symptoms of the infection, and better eliminate toxins produced by the bacteria and counteract side effects of medications to treat Lyme disease.
Can Diet Beat Lyme Disease?
Sole use of an alkalizing diet to beat Lyme disease is not going to be successful. Adopting this kind of diet as a way of living healthily every day may, however, help prevent bacteria growing and spreading rapidly, thereby making Lyme disease treatment faster and easier, as well as helping reduce the intensity of Lyme disease symptoms and expediting recovery.
Those who are interested in finding out more about the use of diet in treating Lyme disease may wish to purchase the insightful, well-researched book by Nicola McFadzean, The Lyme Disease Diet, which includes meal suggestions, discussions of foods to avoid, how to deal with Lyme disease and Candida overgrowth, and explanations of the evidence behind Lyme disease diet recommendations.
Schwalfenberg, G.K., (2012). The Alkaline Diet: Is There Evidence That an Alkaline pH Diet Benefits Health? J Environ Public Health, 727630.
Dawson-Hughes B, Harris SS, Ceglia L., (2008). Alkaline diets favor lean tissue mass in older adults. Am J Clin Nutr, 87(3):662-5.
Webster MJ, Webster MN, Crawford RE, Gladden LB., (1993). Effect of sodium bicarbonate ingestion on exhaustive resistance exercise performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 25(8):960-5.
Frassetto L, Morris RC Jr, Sebastian A. (1997). Potassium bicarbonate reduces urinary nitrogen excretion in postmenopausal women. J Clin Endocrinol Metab, 82(1):254-9.