On Nutrition

This column is brought to you by the letter “A.” There’s a lot of hype about alkaline water and activated charcoal, mostly in the realm of detoxing and neutralizing acids in our bodies, but are these what’s-old-is-new-and-trendy-again substances helpful, harmful or simply a drain on your wallet?

Proponents — and manufacturers — of alkaline water claim that by neutralizing acids in the body, it hydrates you better, boosts your energy, improves digestion, strengthens your bones and helps prevent cancer. Hospital emergency rooms often use activated charcoal to treat overdoses and poisonings from some types of toxins and drugs, a utility that has been broadened into claims that taking activated charcoal in pill form or drinking it in a latte will draw “impurities” out of your body like a DIY detox.

Now, who wouldn’t want to remove toxins, hydrate better, improve bone health and reduce the risk of cancer? Those are normal human desires in anyone who wants to protect or improve their health, and it makes the marketing messages especially seductive. But in both of these cases, the Emperor has no clothes.

Alkaline water is nothing new — it’s been around for decades. But if you believe the new-and-improved marketing hype, you won’t know how you lived without it — literally. The idea that alkaline water helps regulate your body’s pH is a variation of the acid-alkaline diet idea, which is also not new. The terms “acid” and “alkaline” refer to the pH. On a pH scale of 0 to 14, 0 is completely acidic, 14 is completely alkaline and 7 is neutral. For perspective, lemon juice has a pH of 2, your stomach acid has a pH of 1.5 to 3.5, your blood has a pH of 7.35 to 7.45, and baking soda has a pH of 9. Water, including tap water, has a neutral pH of 7. Alkaline water has a pH of up to 8 or 9. It can be naturally alkaline due to its mineral content, or it can be altered to make it that way.

The fact is your lungs and kidneys do an excellent job of keeping your body’s pH levels within a narrow range. There’s no research that alkaline water — or an alkaline diet — helps prevent cancer, and the Food and Drug Administration has blocked claims that it prevents osteoporosis. Industry-funded studies have not turned up compelling evidence that it helps with hydration or sports performance, either.

What about activated charcoal? This is a variation of the idea that we need to do things — eat a “detox” diet, sweat in a sauna, ingest clay, have an enema — to help our bodies detox. However, unless you have a rare health condition that renders your liver — or its supporting players: your kidneys, digestive system, lungs and lymphatic system — unable to perform as designed, then your body doesn’t need help.

Unless you have overdosed or been poisoned, there’s no substantial evidence that activated charcoal will benefit you. Popping it in pill form at home or drinking it in your latte is not a good idea — no matter how darkly pretty those lattes look on Instagram. Why? Because activated charcoal can bind to some pharmaceutical drugs and render them ineffective, including oral contraceptives, statins, antidepressants and medications to treat blood pressure and thyroid conditions. It can also prevent your body from absorbing some essential nutrients.

My evidence-based advice? Save your money, drink plenty of “regular” water — filtered if you prefer — and eat a variety of nutritious foods that support your body’s organs so they can do the detoxifying for you.