Dr. Abs to the ER. Dr. Abs to the ER.

Once in a while, a major Canadian media outlet runs a story on some alternative medicine fad.  These stories often have several themes in common:

1) Claims that the fad in question is derived from ancient knowledge and practices.
2) Paradoxically, it’s totally new and hip.
3) It’s also fairly expensive.
4) You have to travel to one of the major cities in Canada to partake in the full experience (which usually has a lot to do with costly consultation sessions).
5) Or you can order relevant products, which the media outlet is only too happy to provide links and prices for you.
6) The relevant products are also expensive.

I call these faux-stories “Quackvertising”.  As far as I’m concerned, media outlets can sell advertising to whatever company they want (so long as they don’t promote physical harm, which there is always a risk of with alt-med proponents). But when an alt-med health fad catches the ear of a sympathetic writer (I’ll not refer to them as journalists), said writer will skip the advertising aspect all together, and push the fad as a special interest story.  There is no investigative journalism in these cases.  Instead, the writer provides a hamfisted, doe-eyed alt-med promotion in the guise of a review (although ‘survey’ would be a more apt description).  No critical questions are ever asked of the subjects, because that’s not the purpose of the piece: the purpose is to promote the alt-med treatment as though it were an advertisement.

Case in point: this recent piece in the Toronto Star’s Healthzone.ca subsection, titled, Can changing your body’s pH help you dodge disease?   An old skeptic trope about news article headlines is that if your title asks a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, and that answer is ‘no’, then don’t write it. So no, changing your body’s pH level does not help you ‘dodge’ disease, but it will kill you.  Of course, the author of this piece believes that you not only can change your pH level, but that you should.  This belief is taken uncritically at the advice of naturopaths and nutritionists: both fake professions with phoney-baloney degrees.

As I was researching for this post, I was surprised to see my own article on the topic from two years ago pop up. Nothing has changed in the scientific literature since then, so I’ll re-post the summary:

(The following five points come primarily from Science Based Pharmacy and Quackwatch.  I defer to their expertise).

  1. There is no scientific data suggesting that an alkaline (or basic) pH level is necessarily and inherently good for your health, nor is there any suggestion that an acidic pH is bad.
  2. The pH of the human body is around 7.4. Any major deviation from this (below 7 or above 7.7) means almost certain death.
  3. For a normally healthy person, the pH of all incoming foods is ultimately irrelevant, because the hydrochloric acid in our stomachs (pH of 3) sends broken-down food into our intestines (which absorb the nutrients into our bodies), which immediately saturates and neutralizes the food with digestive liquids and enzymes. In other words, it’s the intestines which send the nutrients to our body, food in our intestines is on par with our body’s pH level–it doesn’t matter what the pH level of the food is going in.
  4. Our lungs and our kidneys provide us with powerful pH imbalance protection.
  5. Measuring the pH of our saliva and urine is pointless unless you’re severely ill.

In terms of a plausibility argument, the important bits are our own bits: our organs.  They do a fantastic job of neutralizing the strong acids and bases that come into our bodies.  The key is that they neutralize.  They don’t replace a strong acid with a strong base, or vice versa, they regulate what comes in, not reverse it.  Strong alkalinity is just as dangerous as strong acidity.  Don’t believe me?  Go drink some Mr. Clean*.  I’ll wait for you to come back.

"Go on. Balance your pH levels. I dare you."

To say that this Toronto Star quackvertisment is loaded with fallacies and inaccuracies is putting it mildly.

“It [alkaline dieting]  is a bit of a buzzword right now,” says Erin Wiley, a naturopathic doctor with Integrative Health Institute on Sherbourne St. “But it is an ancient concept.”

Yes, it is a buzzword right now (which should raise some red flags), but no, it is not an ancient concept, not by a long shot. The pH system was first devised in 1909 by Danish chemist Søren Peder Lauritz Sørensen for the Carlsberg laboratory.  Yes, that Carlsberg.  Even if the pH system comes from ancient times, it’s nothing more than an appeal to antiquity.

“Your pH levels fluctuate over the course of a day, so the goal in alkaline training is to control acidity around workouts to build muscle instead of break it down”

If you’re a normally healthy person with no serious diseases, your body hovers around a pH of 7.4.  Your body has many mechanisms in place to ensure that your pH doesn’t fluctuate.  Any deviation beyond 7 – 7.7 on the pH scale means almost certain death (source).  The idea that you can control your acidity by eating more basic foods is at best misguided.  You can’t.  Your body will neutralize the food, keeping your body in homeostasis.  Food does many complicated things to your body, but adjust the pH balance it doesn’t.

“People often think that the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles is what causes fatigue and leads to exhaustion. In fact, it is the hydrogen ions produced during training that causes an acidic environment in the cell that leads fatigue and muscular failure. If we alkalize the body pre-training we can hold off this buildup of acidity and allow superior work capacity”

Acidosis is when your body’s pH level dips below 7.35.  One of the symptoms of acidosis is muscle fatigue.  This bit is true.  However, if you counter this by giving your body an alkaline environment (but diet can’t do this, so presumably the naturopath is pushing either pharmacological interventions or magic to perform this task), you’ll get alkalosis, which is when your body’s pH rises above 7.45.  The symptoms are dehydration, muscle spasms, and muscle cramps.  And remember, this happens when there is a slight adjustment in the pH level.

Of course, the premise here is that not only can you change you pH level, but you should.  And you can do it with diet and supplements.

“The naturopathic community recommends a longer-term look at the alkaline body. “Your body has to work really hard to maintain homeostasis, and it is operating inside a narrow window of pH. The standard North American diet has an acidifying effect. We do not eat enough fruits and vegetables, which have a natural alkalinizing effect. Inflammation is the result, and that wreaks havoc all over the body,”

The skeptic community recommends a longer-term look at journalist credulity for alt-med peddlers. Like I said, the body does maintain a pH of 7.4, but it’s nothing like the “really hard” work the that this naturopath is claiming.  Your stomach, lungs, kidneys and liver are the prime movers in the pH balancing game, and they’re operating with multiple levels of redundancy: as far as pH is concerned, what your stomach doesn’t get, your kidneys should, and your liver, and so on.

“Julie McClure experienced that first-hand. The former investment banker (she did stints on both Wall Street and Bay Street) quit the fast track to find a cure for her chronic migraines.

Her journey took her around the world to intense natural healing clinics, through a raw-food chef school and into studying to be a naturopathic doctor herself. She found that with her new laid-back lifestyle and an alkaline diet, her migraines disappeared.”

Aside from this obvious appeal to anecdote (and a relatable human interest angle) the author notes that Julie McClure was once an investment banker, and is no longer an investment banker. And suddenly her migraines went away?  I, for one, am shocked.  But I suppose it makes more sense to credit what the naturopath claims, rather than the obvious solution staring us in the face: high stress jobs cause health problems.  Occam’s Razor: yer doin it wrong!

“She took a year off school to launch Benourished juices and raw-food bars, now for sale at her store on Avenue Road, high-end food store Pusateri’s, and in gyms around Toronto. Her three-day Dockside Detox is also available in Muskoka this summer.”

You can buy her products, here’s where you get them, they’re expensive, and you can also travel to get a more involved treatment. Textbook quackvertising.

“The Green Alkalizer juice, an organic swiss chard and celery cocktail that retails for about $9.95, is the hot pre-treadmill drink among the body-sculpting set. McClure uses hydraulic juice presses (all the rage among socialites in New York and Los Angeles, says McClure), and the drinks have a shelf life of just three days to ensure potency.”

So drink it fast and drink it often, otherwise you’ll not get the full effect. Oh, and $9.95 for an exercise drink?  The alt-med community in general, and naturopaths in specific know all too well how to exploit the insecurities and vulnerabilities of someone trying to get in shape.

“Bubbs will recommend supplements for his athletes as a way to kick-start a larger lifestyle change: He suggests Genestra blue-green algae capsules and Genuine Health by Greens +, as well as his own line, Athletes Greens, at [link removed]”

Not only should you take supplements, but you should take the supplements sold by the people being promoted!  I always get a sad chuckle when this angle crops up (and it does, almost every time).  The conversation goes like this:

Alt-med peddler (or “Alt-meddler”): Your body is not in balance!  I bet you feel vague symptoms of unrest, anxiety and stress, right?
Consumer: That sounds *JUST* like me! Oh noes!  What can I do?
Alt-meddler: You need to dramatically change your lifestyle, and your diet!
Consumer: But how?
Alt-meddler: give me $250 and I can show you!
Consumer: Yay! (hands over huge pile of dubloons)
Alt-meddler: Feel better now?
Consumer: I….I think so….but I sure FEEL like I did something.  But I still have trouble with these vague symptoms!
Alt-meddler: Oh, I can fix that too!  You can come to my office and we’ll get that balance fixed!
Consumer: But, I can’t! I have to work and life is incredibly busy, and I just gave you a significant part of my paycheck!
Alt-meddler: Ah, but there’s a solution!  You can take supplements!  I sell them!  You see, mainstream medicine only focuses on the symptoms and is greedy and wants to sell you pills and keep you sick and buzzwords.  Me?  I focus on the *cause*, and I’m operating outside of the greedy mainstream, so you can trust me that I’m not in it for the profit.
Consumer: oooooo! Greedy doctors!
Alt-meddler: So, are you….uh…gonna write that cheque, or not? My supplements cost $44.95, and you should really take three a day.  There are sixty pills in a bottle, so you might want to get several months worth of them.  To, uhh, you know…balance you more!
Consumer: YAY!

It’s always the proponents/peddlers/users of alt-med quackery that are the first to point out that medicine is expensive, and lay blame on a greedy system, and those greedy doctors.  No one, especially not journalists who cover these stories, ever thinks to look at the cost of the alt-med practitioner, peddling their own wares for an inflated price.

“Trainers such as Smits refer their clients to Nandor Bajusz, a clinical nutritionist based in Mississauga (who is clearly also a workout expert — check out his serious eight-pack on display on his website). He is passionate about the benefits of keeping your body and your workouts in balance.

In other words: Seriously! Check out his abs!  A guy with abs like that MUST know what he’s talking about, right?  Nandor Bujasz bills himself on his website as “Dr. Nandor Bujasz”.  He’s claiming that he is a PHd candidate (which makes him ineligible to call himself “Dr” at all), and I was unable to find where his doctoral work is being/has been done.

This eight-pack’d nutritionist (which is, remember, a fake profession) continues with something flat out wrong:

“Disease cannot exist in an alkaline state,” he says.”

I call bullshit.  Both leukemia and lymphoma can survive and thrive at a pH of 7.4, which is, you’ll note, alkaline.  Saying this is not only wreckless, but dangerous and irresponsible.  Imagine a person in the early stages of lymphoma who hears this and thinks that an alkaline shift in their diet is enough to counter the disease.  This person could die.  Developing a false sense of security is all too common with people who take these quacks seriously.

Doctor Abs closed his part of the story with something which I found to be rather odd.

“I can get you doing something simple, like a teaspoon of apple-cider vinegar a day.”

Last I checked, apple-cider vinegar has a pH level of 4.25-5.00.  Which is acidic.  In fact, it is more acidic than you are.  Alt-meddlers don’t even try to follow their own arbitrary rules of balance.

Apparently a well-balanced diet is too basic for Dr. Abs to understand.

"I have abs too."

 

*Don’t drink some Mr. Clean.

3 Responses to “Dr. Abs to the ER. Dr. Abs to the ER.”

  1. Marc says:

    This is an excellent examination of that article. I couldn’t believe that the Star gave a half-page to this in their Saturday edition. When I read the first lines, I thought it might be a parody of health fluff pieces, especially as the author immediately admits that “alkaline dieting” is a buzzword. But apparently, this was meant to be taken seriously.

    I wrote a recent blog post about the fad of alkaline diets and pH regulation, showing a “pH chart” from a health-food store that listed the alleged pH values of various foods, getting almost all of them incredibly wrong. It’s a problem that people believe that alkaline diets work. It’s an even bigger problem that the information they use to decide which foods are appropriate for their diet is so wrong.

    http://www.atomsandnumbers.com/2012/this-post-is-ph-balanced-for-all/

    When someone claims that a teaspoon of apple-cider vinegar (vinegar, aka acetic acid) will keep your body alkaline, you have to wonder how much (if any) trust you can put into the other recommendations he gives.

  2. Thomas Doubts says:

    Great job, Steve! Well summarized!

  3. Adam Commonsense says:

    I think that the early education is failing our kids and thus failing society. Biology, as all science subjects, is an optional subject in Public High School. Most, if they can get away with it, finish High School with hardly any science training. And let’s face it, most people don’t go into science based careers. Thus most people are susceptible to the various alt-med propaganda that they are bombarded with daily on the radio, the TV infomercials and the print media ( Toronto Star?! I mean come on! ) and not able to verify right away what they read or see or hear. The educators are failing Canadians.

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  • Steve Thoms

    Steve is a professional music teacher living in Kitchener, Ontario. He studied recorded music production at Fanshawe College, and Political Studies/History at Trent University, where he specialized in political economy and global politics. He is an amateur astronomer, and an award-winning astro-photographer. Steve also runs the blog, Oot and Aboot with Some Canadian Skeptic." can can be followed on Twitter, @SomeCndnSkeptic.