Tech + Health

01.29.14

Alkalinizing Someone to Improve His or Her Health Is Simple-Minded, Fatuous, and Dangerous

This kind of delusion would be amusing to consider if it were not so very lethal.

The latest medical news out of Southern California ‎concerns a fake healthcare practitioner threatened with the slammer for trying to “alkalinize” some willing patients into health.

According to the LA Times, Robert Oldham Young, who operates the pH Miracle Center and is author of the book, The pH Miracle, had the requisite building, the attitude, the theories, and the patients but had omitted one small detail—that pesky medical license. He also was charged with grand theft: by report the treatments, generally for cancer, cost between $50,000 and $120,000.

The Young story draws on several very deep-rooted American enthusiasms. First is the notion that Big Medicine, that harsh and hurried money-sucking apparatus, is always wrong. The second is that anything and anyone, such as Mr Young, who flies against the brisk winds of medical convention is necessarily correct. And the third is that somehow we all are set at the wrong acid-base balance and require IV fluids to re-establish our natural state.

Let’s take the last notion first since it is the specific issue at hand. Mammalian cellular metabolism, aka the basic rules of being alive on planet Earth, runs best at a pH between 7.38 and 7.42. The human body goes to tremendous lengths to maintain business within this very narrow pH range especially the kidneys and lungs which work overtime to assure stability. Things simply go haywire outside the boundaries and cells (and people) die.

As we were taught in high school Chem, any pH below 7.4 is acidic. For example, hydrochloric acid ‎and other flesh-dissolving acids exist at a pH of 2 or even lower. Things on the other side of the ledger, at a pH above 7, are alkaline (also called “basic” as in acid-base). Mild bases, like sodium bicarbonate or Alka-Seltzer, run up to a pH of 8 or higher. Lye, that harsh chemical known to clean and dissolve dirt as well as human flesh as readily as acid, travels at an even higher pH. In other words the extremes of pH, acid or base, are incompatible with life.

Given that only the middle works, ie, that a pH too high or too low is fatal, it is odd that alkalinization is promoted as a panacea. But somehow along the way, the chemical term “acidic” entered the language as a standard-issue unpleasant adjective like acerbic or bitter. Perhaps it is the fault of stomach acid but acid always seems evil, unlike “alkaline” which seems like the boring, reliable antidote—but this dichotomy is simply not true. One pH direction is no better or more natural than the other. And “alkalinizing” someone in an attempt to improve their health is simple-minded, fatuous, and dangerous.

“‘Alkalinizing’ someone in an attempt to improve his or her health is simple-minded, fatuous, and dangerous.”

But California medicine will always be California medicine and people who want to be more alkaline will find a way. Nothing to be done. The rest of the Young story‎ however is even more concerning. It and similar tales are presented as if a spirited and underfunded band of Davids—the naturopaths—is pitted heroically against the brutal and senseless excesses of western Medicine. The ultimate battle: the simple beauty of the intuitive and natural versus the avaricious cult that values objective science, randomized studies, statistical analysis, and the rational mind. In such a duel, Western medicine has no chance.

Even the evocation of this familiar trope however isn’t the worst of this sort of story. Rather, the most slippery problem disclosed is how vague the entire world of non-traditional medicine has proven to be. In the article on Young, he is referred to as an “alternative medicine practitioner” yet his lawyer is seeking Young’s protection according to California’s Homeopathic medicine laws which seek to normalize homeopathy as an acceptable approach to medicine. Unlike Young though, actual homeopathic doctors have attended professional schools; they are licensed and monitored and part of conventional American regulation.

Young et al have found the massive loophole that equates all the non-traditional providers and sweeps them all together as deserving support and sympathy reserved for the underdog: some are well-trained, such as chiropractors, acupuncturists, homeopaths—while others are simply “alternative medicine practitioners” with no training in anything. Yet by the perverse math of American values, the less educated, the less distorted by books and learning, the more barefoot and regressive, the better. This sort of caveman envy is another manifestation of the anti-vaccine, anti-evolution, non-reality based wing of public discourse, a delusion that would be amusing to consider if it were not so very lethal.