The Weird World of Alkaline Detoxes
From branded water to gunky foot baths, people are trying to fix a problem that experts say doesn’t even exist.
“From the moment I drank the pHountain water—this sounds a little silly—but I felt like there was life in that water,” Semajh Bludson, 23, said.
“I was like, this is water. This is what water’s supposed to taste like. And every time I drink it I feel alive, I feel focused.”
Bludson was speaking about water whose pH level had been reduced below acidity levels, or “alkalinized” water. It’s become a hot new way to prevent diseases ranging from joint pain to cancer.
And it’s pricey: Spas charge $60 for a foot bath detox treatment. Complicated water ionizing systems go for $2,000. And don’t forget the booming bottled alkaline water industry. All these treatments claim to help your body regulate its pH levels.
According to science, though, alkalinized water is useless.
The “acid-ash” hypothesis that forms the basis of alkalinized water was originally introduced in the 1960s by doctors studying osteoporosis, and found that foods higher in acidity levels on the pH scale may affect joint health. Those foods are often part of a typical Western diet: meat, cheese, sodas, and processed foods.
The alkalinized diet is largely plant-based, encouraging the intake of vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, and beans, as well as small amounts of lean meats and fish—an otherwise and healthy and balanced diet.
What makes the diet questionable is its promotion of drinking “alkalizing” beverages like alkaline water or green tea, whose pH levels have been adjusted. A 2011 study of the alkalinized diet found that eating more fruits and vegetables might help bone health, but researchers couldn’t point specifically to the more alkaline levels of the food as the reason.
Nevertheless, the diet gained steam in 2002 with Robert Young’s best-selling book, The pH Miracle: Balance Your Diet, Reclaim Your Health. Young has been charged multiple times for practicing medicine without a license, and was sentenced to three years and eight months in prison in 2017.
Young’s book, however, caught on. Kirsten Dunst, Jennifer Aniston, and Gwyneth Paltrow, among others, helped fan the flames of the diet. In 2013, Victoria Beckham tweeted a photo of the alkaline diet cookbook, Eating the Alkaline Way: Recipes for a Well-Balanced, Honestly Healthy Lifestyle, setting off a flurry of interest.
“There are a lot of reasons people feel better on these types of plans, but it’s not always the reason that they think,” said Samantha Cassetty, a registered dietitian. “I think that when people go on this diet and replace less healthy habits with the foods that are available to them, that’s the reason they feel great.”
But adding more alkaline water doesn’t make sense—especially because your body does such a good job naturally regulating pH levels.
“In terms of eating to balance out your alkalinity, in general, your body regulates its alkalinity at base levels,” she told The Daily Beast. “Different parts of your body keep that tightly controlled in different ways. The acidity of the stomach is different from the acidity of urine, for example.”
An increasingly popular way for people to get alkalinized water in their body, however, is at the spa.
A chain of wellness centers around Long Island, New York called pHountain has been offering a range pH neutralizing gimmicks, like water that has been ionized to create pH levels anywhere from 8 to 10 (a neutral water pH level is 7) and a three-step detox that culminates in an ionic foot bath, since 2010.
“When you fuel the body with acidic things, it starts to act acidic,” a staffer at pHountain Huntington said when The Daily Beast posed as a potential customer to ask about the water. “That’s when you start to see illness and disease, so you want to be fueling your body with an alkaline state to buffer out and neutralize the acidity in your body.”
Other pHountain locations spouted similar garbled sentences about our body’s ability to naturally balance pH between 7.35 to 7.45 on its own, the acidity of the typical Western diet, and the body’s resulting acidic state.
Many go so far as to suggest testing urine with pH strips.
But a lower urine pH number isn’t necessarily a bad thing. According to Jessica Bihuniak, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at New York University, acidic urine simply means your kidneys are removing toxins from your body—what it’s supposed to do.
Even if someone drank alkaline water to balance out pH levels, there is almost no scientific backing to say that the water would have an effect on the body’s alkalinity, and it certainly wouldn’t affect something as serious as cancer.
“Some studies that look at dietary manipulation found that we can change urinary pH,” Bihuniak said. “However, it appears that when we manipulate acid or the basic properties of the diet, it has very little impact on blood pH, and no association with diet acid load and cancer.”
When asked about these claims, Ron Pagliarulo, the chief operating officer of pHountain, cited pseudoscience about the molecular hydrogen with which the water is infused. (All water is composed of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen at the molecular level.)
However, a 2017 study on the potential therapeutic and preventative uses of hydrogen was skeptical about whether drinking molecular hydrogen would be practical or even safe.
Nonetheless, alkalinity is a big business, fueled by celebrities like Beyonce and Tom Brady, who swear alkaline water is an elixir. In 2014, it was a$47 million business; just three years later, in 2017, it had exploded 7.5 times to a $427 million business, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation. One company in particular, The Alkaline Water Co., projects profits to reach $40 million by the end of 2019—double what it made in 2018. That revenue doesn’t even begin to account for the many homeopathic clinics, spas, and alternative health practices offering detoxifying, ionic foot baths.
For those not willing to spend on pricey water and overhaul their diet, ionic foot bath detoxes have become especially popular as a way to “release” toxins. Negative ions are abundant in certain environments, like the ocean or the mountains, and have been shown to elevate mood and energy.
But there is no evidence that these ions can enter your bloodstream through the pores of your feet.
Ionic foot baths are visually powerful: the aftermath of a pool of gunk may seem convincing. But a 2016 Inside Edition episode demonstrated that the water turned into a small swamp because of the rusting agent of the ionizer combined with the table salt that’s sprinkled into the tub—not your feet.
Pagliarulo admitted that the water doesn’t actually pull anything out of your feet. “It floods your body with negative ions,” he said instead. “All of the sudden your body feels very refreshed. The machine replicates what negative ions do and helps restore the cells. This leads to better sleep, better mood, and more mental clarity.”
Pagliarulo didn’t speak to the medical benefits of alkalinization. “You can’t change the alkalinity of your blood. If you change it, you’ll go to the emergency room.”
Cindy Schwartz, 60, of Woodbury, New York has been drinking alkaline water for nearly three years after developing acid reflux. She’s considering pHountain’s membership plan. “My own research showed I can ease my pain without medication if I were on the alkaline diet,” she said. “So I changed how I ate, I drink the water of pH 9 or above, and I lost 10 pounds.”
But even Schwartz is wondering if the water had anything to do with her health transformation.
“I truly believe in my soul it healed me,” she said. “But, you wonder, is it just a placebo? In the end, it can just be a capitalist ploy to make money.”