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Good Health and Bad Medicine:
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 Spastic Constipation



 'gas' And Bloating

 Alkalizers And Acidosis


 Diet - Part 1

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Alkalizers And Acidosis

( Originally Published 1940 )

THE discoveries of medical science in the past two or three decades have followed one another in breath-taking succession. The alert physician has been hard pressed to assimilate them; the lay public is usually bewildered. Even when certain fundamental concepts about the body have long been established, it may take years before some real understanding of them is obtained. Moreover, popular health education is made far more difficult than it should be by the tremendous volume of patent-medicine advertising to which the public is exposed.

Consider the condition known as "acidosis." The facts about it have been known for more than a decade. But mis-leading, false or exaggerated advertising has played mischief with the public's notions on the subject. And false notions have had their effect—a bad one—on the public's health and finances.

The idea of a harmful "acid" condition of the body gained prominence some years ago when physicians began to recognize that in certain serious ailments—diabetes and kidney disease, for example—an accumulation of acid substances took place. As almost invariably happens, this discovery was soon being applied uncritically to a host of everyday, commonplace disorders, and was soon giving rise to such expressions as "acid in the blood," "acid skin," "acid indigestion" and "acid mouth."

So the consumer is urged to "Keep on the Alkaline Side," "Be Wise—Alkalize," "Combat Acidity or Hyperacidity," "Relieve Acid Indigestion," "Correct Acid Skin," wear "alkalizing innersoles" and suck on the "alkaline factor" in a cough drop. To add to the confusion of the public, the New York State Bureau of Milk Publicity, an organ of the people of that state, urges the consumer to drink milk because of its "alkalizing effect."

At the outset it can be stated that the blood of a healthy person is no more in need of "alkalizing" to keep it healthy than the eyes need an eyewash to keep them moist; that with the common cold or grippe, and with functional disorders such as constipation, there is no accumulation of acid; that fatigue, a "dark brown" taste, a foggy feeling, jitters or head-ache are not to the slightest extent caused by "acids in the blood," "acidity" or acidosis; and that only in certain specific serious disorders, such as severe diabetes or nephritis, severe diarrhea or starvation, or certain severe infections, does acid intoxication threaten or occur. When it does, something more than an "alkalizer" is needed.

These facts become clear if it is realized that the reaction of the blood and tissues is one of the most constant things in the life of an organism. In man, this reaction is normally slightly alkaline and it is. kept so from conception to death by a number of delicate mechanisms. Any appreciable change in the reaction either to the acid or the alkaline side will lead to serious symptoms or death.

Fortunately, because the body possesses remarkable natural defenses against both acids and alkalies, such changes occur rarely—usually only in the serious disorders mentioned above.

The first line of defense against acid intoxication is the sodium bicarbonate normally present in the blood, lymph and tissue fluids of every human being, similar to the sodium bicarbonate that you buy. This store of bicarbonate is part of what is known as the "alkaline reserve." It is also called "buffer" substance, derived from the German word meaning tampon. And it is appropriately named because, like a tampon, it mops up acids, neutralizes them and thus prevents them from accumulating in the body.

The protein material present in all living cells of the body is also a part of the alkaline reserve, forming a second line of defense in the prevention of acid intoxication.

A third and more important defense is breathing. While the main and obvious purpose of breathing is to take in oxygen and to get rid of the waste carbon dioxide, another purpose is to maintain the normal blood reaction. The vital center in the brain that regulates respiration is so sensitive that it can detect changes in the reaction of the blood more promptly and more delicately than the finest physical instruments, even before you could say "Alka-Seltzer." And the slightest change in the blood reaction immediately brings this center into action.

If the change is toward acid, the respirations deepen and quicken and more carbonic acid or carbon dioxide is expelled. Deep and rapid respirations, in fact, are among the most prominent and characteristic signs of true acidosis. (Prostration and coma are other symptoms present—the picture of true acidosis is thus far removed from that drawn by patent-medicine advertising.) If the change is toward more alkalinity than normal, the respirations slacken and carbonic acid is retained to neutralize the excess alkali.

If, finally, there is a tendency to acid accumulation, the kidneys will excrete acid. If there is a tendency to excessive alkali accumulation, the kidneys will excrete alkali. More than this, when acidosis threatens, the kidneys can even manufacture alkali to supplement the bicarbonate of the blood.

Other organs and tissues also play a part in the maintenance of a constant acid-alkaline equilibrium, but those we have mentioned are most important. The net truth is that there is no need whatsoever for an individual to take White Rock or Alka-Seltzer or any other such substance to keep himself alkaline. Any tendency to acidosis is at once checked by the numerous defenses that the body possesses.

The most that the so-called "alkalizers" can do is to furnish a palatable drink. And the stimulation which a person may get from an effervescent fluid is no test of its medical value. When these remedies contain aspirin (Atka-Seltzer) or acetanilid (Bromo-Seltzer) they may relieve some of the aches and pains accompanying a cold, grippe or flu. But the relief is due to the analgesic (pain-relieving) drug and not to any "alkalizing" tendency. In sensitive people, however, or in cases where they are taken in large amounts or over long periods, these drugs (aspirin, acetanilid or others) can cause serious toxic effects; they have no power to prevent, check or cure the illnesses.

As for constipation, it is neither due to, nor accompanied by, acidosis. If the symptoms of this condition were caused by an "acid" condition or "acidity," they would be relieved by taking an alkaline powder, instead of by a bowel movement.

Nor are the symptoms of "the morning after" in any way related to a state of acidosis. Many of these symptoms are due to gastric irritation, and the relief that an alkaline effervescent drink affords is largely due to the sedative effect of charged water on the mucous membrane of the stomach. A glass of plain carbonated water would in a great many cases have a similar effect.

Alcohol does produce, however, an increase in the acid secretion of the stomach in some people. Of this "hyperacidity" we shall have more to say later; for the present it is worth emphasizing that it is entirely different from acidosis. Hyperacidity is a local condition of the stomach, while acidosis is a general, systemic condition.

That eczema and hives have nothing to do with a state of acidosis, although they have been associated with "too much acid in the blood," has long been known. Both of these skin disorders are frequently caused by a hypersensitivity of the skin to certain substances present in the environment or in food or drink. Hives, for example, may be caused by sensitivity to tomatoes, not because the tomato is an "acid food," but because it contains a specific substance capable of exciting a skin disorder in a sensitive person.

The matter of acid and alkaline foods has confused many people. The diet fads and fancies of quacks and "food scientists" are in the main responsible for this confusion. From the chemical point of view foods can be classified according to the nature of their mineral content. Some foods—nuts, fruits and vegetables—furnish alkaline minerals. Other foods —meat, fish, eggs, bread, corn and rice—furnish acid minerals. Such foods as sugar, starch, fats and oils furnish no minerals and are therefore considered neutral foods.

The so-called acid fruits, such as oranges, lemons, grape-fruit and tomatoes, do contain acids, but they are weak, organic acids, quickly and easily oxidized or burned in the body. The mineral residue of these fruits, remaining after the oxidation is completed, is slightly alkaline in reaction.

In the average mixed diet, the acid and alkaline foods are well balanced. Even when the diet consists chiefly or almost exclusively of one or the other, no disturbance in the reaction of the blood or tissues will result. It is only when the diet is one-sided for weeks or months that acidosis or alkalosis will occur. Usually the digestive tract will rebel at the one-sidedness of the diet before that happens.

The advertising of the New York State Bureau of Milk Publicity has been urging that more milk be drunk because milk "alkalizes." Milk is an excellent food. It furnishes calories, good proteins, vitamins, calcium and phosphorous. But it is because it is rich in these essentials that milk is an excellent food, not because it contains a small residue of alkaline minerals. If a person never drank milk at all he would still be in no danger of acidosis, and the campaign to get people to drink more milk should not, certainly, be based upon misleading slogans that perpetuate the public's confusion. There is irony in the fact that the Director of Health Service of the Borden Co., Dr. James A. Tobey, in an article in the American Journal of Public Health, protested against just such misleading statements as the Bureau has been guilty of using. He says: "It is the duty of public health officials . . . to aid in debunking fads and follies, such as the belief that acidosis results from acid food, and that foods of different chemical composition can upset the acid base balance of any normal person." Further: "The effects of foods ... in bringing about modifications in the chemical content of the blood is practically nil."

Scientific evidence indicates, therefore, that the question of acid- and alkali-forming foods is a negligible one in human dietetics.

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