We all know that vegetables and fruits are good for us and that we need to be eating more of them. They provide us with essential nutrients including vitamins, minerals, fibre and water. But, did you know that boosting your intake of plant foods may help with pain relief?

pH balance and pain

In the clinic, I see a lot of clients with pain — even though that’s not what they are necessarily seeing me for. Sometimes it is acute pain from recent injuries, although the majority of the pain I am seeing is chronic, ongoing pain. Something that I have noticed with these clients is that as we improve the diet and address inflammation, the pain begins to dissipate. And I think that a major contributing factor in the persistence of chronic pain is an imbalance in tissue pH levels — which is corrected as we improve the diet.

*pH is a measure of free hydrogen ion concentration, which determines whether a substance is acidic, neutral or alkaline — the higher the concentration of hydrogen ions, the more acidic a substance is. The pH scale ranges from 0 -14, where pH < 7 is acidic, pH = 7 is neutral, pH > 7 is alkaline.

The pH scale

The pH scale

Our bodies are designed to produce acid, mainly as a process of metabolism. Cleverly, our bodies also have effective ways of breaking down and eliminating acids via the kidneys and lungs. Physiologically, this system works well — until we enter the modern world and we overburden the system with the likes of poor food choices, stress, alcohol, inflammation and ageing. Subsequently, our tissues become more acidic.

When I talk about acidity, I am referring to the pH of the fluids in and around our cells as well as urine — not the pH of our blood. The pH of our blood is very tightly regulated, and will not vary much at all. If it does, we are met with death.

So, how is tissue acidification related to pain? Well, as the pH of our tissues become more acidic, there are increased levels of free hydrogen ions. These hydrogen ions are able to switch on specific pain channels in the nervous system. This not only increases our sensitivity to pain but can also damage the cells and cause inflammation — further exacerbating to pain. While there are various factors that can contribute to tissue acidification, our diet is a big one.

How do our diets create acidity?

Typically, our modern diets contain high amounts of processed foods, sugar, animal foods and unhealthy fats — which we know don’t provide much nutritional value and can contribute to weight gain, and conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. When these foods are metabolised, they contribute significantly to the acid load on the body.

And it is not only the increase in acid load that is causing tissue acidification. More importantly, it is due to a deficiency of our most important buffers — VEGETABLES!

Vegetables provide us with many nutrients, but they also provide a good dose of citrates, malates and gluconates. These substances are able to buffer the acidity produced by mopping up excess the hydrogen ions (that create acidity), forming neutral substances that are more easily eliminated from the body. By increasing our vegetable intake we can lower the acid burden on the body, meaning those little pain channels are less likely to be activated.

How do I know if I have an imbalance in acidity?

If you are living in the modern world and not eating a truckload of vegetables daily, then it is likely that you have some imbalances in tissue pH levels. As a naturopath, there are a few things that I look at in addition to symptoms to assess tissue acidification in clients.

Firstly we look at the dietary balance of acid load and buffering foods. We also look at lifestyle factors such as stress, exercise, and sleep quality, as these too can contribute to acid load. Secondly, I look at blood chemistry and I test urinary pH levels. The blood results give me an idea of how long acidity has been an issue for a client, while the pH of urine indicates how your diet is impacting acid balance.

Correcting acid imbalance takes time and yes, it invariably involves vegetables. Of course, vegetables are not the panacea of all chronic disease nor is tissue acidification the only aspect contributing to chronic pain. But, they are a really good foundation to start from and build upon.

Looking for nutritional support to help with chronic pain or balancing acidity? Book a naturopathic appointment to see me in clinic


Sarah Woolner

I’m Sarah — a qualified naturopath and food enthusiast. I am currently practicing on Sydney's Northern Beaches, in Brookvale and Mosman. If you would like to make an appointment please send me an email via the contact page.

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