The pH scale measures how acidic or alkaline (basic) something is.
Your body works constantly to carefully control pH levels of blood and other fluids. The body’s pH balance is also called the acid-base or acid-alkaline balance. The right pH levels are needed for good health.
The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14. The readings are based around a pH of 7, which is neutral (like pure water):
- A pH below 7 is acidic.
- A pH higher than 7 is alkaline or basic.
This scale might seem small, but each level is 10 times bigger than the next. For example, a pH of 9 is 10 times more alkaline than a pH of 8. A pH of 2 is 10 times more acidic than a pH of 3, and 100 times more acidic than a reading of 4.
Your blood has a normal pH range of 7.35 to 7.45. This means that blood is naturally slightly alkaline or basic.
In comparison, stomach acid has a pH of around 3 to 5.5. This makes it acidic. A low pH is good for digesting food and destroying any germs that get into the stomach.
Health problems that make the body too acidic or too alkaline are usually linked to the pH of blood. Changes in your normal blood pH might be a sign of certain health conditions and medical emergencies. These include:
- heart disease
- kidney disease
- lung disease
- hemorrhage (bleeding)
- drug overdose
Blood pH balance
Acidosis is when blood pH drops below 7.35 and becomes too acidic. Alkalosis is when blood pH is higher than 7.45 and becomes too alkaline. The two main organs that help balance the pH of blood are the:
- Lungs. These organs remove carbon dioxide through breathing (respiration).
- Kidneys. These organs remove acids through urine (excretion).
The different types of blood acidosis and alkalosis depend on the cause. The two main types are:
- Respiratory. This type occurs when the change in blood pH is caused by a lung or breathing condition.
- Metabolic. This type occurs when blood pH changes because of a kidney condition or issue.
A blood pH test is a normal part of a blood gas test. This test is also known as an arterial blood gas (ABG) test. It measures how much oxygen and carbon dioxide is in your blood.
Your doctor might test your blood pH as part of a regular health check-up, or if you have a health condition.
Blood pH tests involve getting blood taken with a needle. The blood sample is then sent to a lab to be tested.
Can you test at home?
An at-home blood finger-prick test won’t be as accurate as a blood pH test from your doctor. A urine pH litmus paper test won’t show your blood’s pH level, but it may help show that something is off balance.
High blood pH
Alkalosis happens when your blood pH is higher than the normal range. There are several causes of high blood pH. An illness can temporarily raise blood pH. Some foods can also make blood more alkaline. More serious health conditions can also lead to alkalosis.
Losing too much water from your body can increase blood pH. This happens because you also lose some blood electrolytes (salts and minerals) with water loss. These include sodium and potassium. Causes of fluid loss are excess:
Diuretic drugs and other medications may cause too much urination leading to high blood pH. Treatment for fluid loss includes getting plenty of fluid and replacing electrolytes. Sport drinks can sometimes help with this. Your doctor may also stop any medications that cause fluid loss.
Your kidneys help to keep your body’s acid-base balance. A kidney problem can lead to high blood pH. This may happen if the kidneys don’t remove enough alkaline substances through the urine. For example, bicarbonate may be incorrectly put back into the blood.
Medications and other treatments for the kidneys help to lower high blood pH.
Low blood pH
Blood acidosis can impact how every organ in your body functions. Low blood pH is a more common medical problem than high blood pH. Acidosis can be a warning sign that a health condition isn’t properly controlled.
Some health conditions cause natural acids to build up in your blood. Kinds of acids that can lower blood pH include:
- lactic acid
- keto acids
- sulphuric acid
- phosphoric acid
- hydrochloric acid
- carbonic acid
Eating an imbalanced diet may temporarily lower blood pH. Eating too little or going for long periods without eating can also make your blood acidic. Avoid too many acid-forming foods, including:
- dairy (cow’s milk, cheese, yogurt)
- poultry (chicken, turkey)
- grains (flour, bread, pasta, rice)
Balance your blood pH by eating more alkaline-forming foods. These include fresh and cooked vegetables and fresh, frozen, and dried fruit. Avoid starvation or fad diets. Lose weight in a safe, healthy way with a balanced daily diet.
If you have diabetes, your blood may become acidic if your blood sugar levels aren’t properly controlled. Diabetic ketoacidosis happens when your body can’t make enough insulin or use it properly.
Insulin helps move sugar from the foods you eat into your cells. This is where it can be burned as fuel for your body.
If insulin can’t be used, your body begins breaking down stored fats to power itself. This gives off an acid waste called ketones. The acid builds up, triggering low blood pH.
Get emergency care if your blood sugar level is higher than 300 milligrams per deciliter (16 millimoles per liter).
See your doctor if you have any of these symptoms:
- excess thirst
- frequent urination
- fatigue or weakness
- nausea or vomiting
- shortness of breath
- fruity-smelling breath
- stomach pain
Diabetic ketoacidosis is a sign that your diabetes isn’t being controlled or treated properly. For some people, it may be the first sign that you have diabetes.
Treating your diabetes will balance your blood pH. You may need daily medications, insulin injections, and a strict diet and exercise plan to stay healthy.
Low blood pH because of kidney disease or kidney failure is called metabolic acidosis. This happens when the kidneys don’t work properly to remove acids from your body. This raises blood acids and lowers blood pH.
According to the National Kidney Foundation, symptoms of metabolic acidosis include:
- fatigue and weakness
- loss of appetite
- nausea and vomiting
- headache pain
- fast heartbeat
- heavy breathing
Treatment for metabolic disease includes medications to help the kidneys work better. In serious cases, you may need dialysis or a kidney transplant. Dialysis is when a machine is used to clean the blood.
When the lungs aren’t able to move enough carbon dioxide out of your body quickly enough, blood pH is lowered. This is called respiratory acidosis. This can happen if you have a serious or chronic lung condition, such as:
- asthma (or an asthma attack)
- sleep apnea
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- diaphragm disorders
People who’ve had surgery, are obese, or who abuse sedatives (sleeping pills) or opioid painkillers are also at risk of respiratory acidosis.
In some slight cases the kidneys are able to remove the extra blood acids through urination. You may need extra oxygen and medications such as bronchodilators and steroids to help the lungs work better.
In serious cases, intubation and mechanical ventilation helps people with respiratory acidosis breathe and raises blood pH back to normal.
A blood pH level that isn’t normal may be a sign of a slight imbalance or a health condition. In most cases, your blood pH will balance out once the cause goes away or is treated.
You may need several tests to help your doctor find the best treatment for you. These include:
- blood tests (blood gas, glucose, creatinine blood tests)
- urine tests
- chest X-ray
- heart electrocardiogram (ECG)
If you have a chronic condition like diabetes or kidney disease, your doctor may need to check your blood pH levels routinely. This helps to show how well your condition is controlled. Be sure to take all medications as prescribed.
In an absence of health conditions, your body regulates your blood pH and it’s not something you need to worry about. Ask your doctor about the best diet and exercise plan to keep you healthy.