“Change your water, change your life”
This is the claim made of Kangen Water, a product (sold via independent distributors) which changes the pH of water. They recommend drinking water that is more alkaline for better health. But does alkaline water really work? In this article I’ll explain what that means, and how it might, or might not, improve our health and exercise.
What is alkaline water?
It is water that has been “ionized”. In water H2O molecules sometimes disassociate, or break apart, into H+ (A hydrogen ion), and an OH–. This happens regularly, and these ions bind together again when they encounter another oppositely charged ion. So we don’t even notice this happens.
In pure (distilled) water, there are an equal amount of both, as they’ve come from the same broken up molecule. The pH of distilled water is 7.0, which is neutral.
When you add some table salt to the water, and run it through a machine causing electrolysis, you can a mildly alkaline solution of sodium hydroxide. I’m not a chemist, so have held back from trying to explain this in more detail. But this guy is a chemist, does a great job explaining it, and has a delightfully retro website!
What does alkaline water do?
This is a difficult question to answer, because there are so many claims made about alkaline water. We will focus on claims made specifically about Kangen water, from the website of my local distributors (who go by the name “Sexy Water”).
Different distributors, or different products, may make slightly different claims. But the themes are often the same. You can look and feel younger, prevent or manage illness, and improve exercise performance.
They claim that much ill health occurs because our body being too acidic, but this is a little too vague to properly assess. The acidity of our body varies greatly, with stomach acid being very acidic (of course!), while bile, which neutralises stomach acid on our intestines, is alkaline. And our urine is acidic, which limits the growth of microbes.
In fact, our body does a great job of maintaining the pH of different organs and systems, through a process known as homeostasis. Any changes in our body’s pH are quickly corrected. So it’s not clear that it’s even possible for alkaline water to have an effect on the pH of our body.
If it did, it may lead to other complications. All our foods and drinks could have the same effect. It would mean we would need to constantly balance the acidity and alkalinity of everything we consume to keep our body within a healthy range. This would be extraordinarily difficult and time-consuming!
Is there research proving alkaline water works?
On first impressions, yes there is. If you look at the Sexy Water website, for example, you will find a really long list of research they claim shows the benefits of their product. So I took a closer look.
One heading that caught my eye was “cancer”. They link to two studies under this heading, suggesting alkaline water has a benefit for cancer. This is a red flag for me. If someone is talking about curing or treating cancer as if it was one disease they probably aren’t qualified to make any claims. “Cancer” is a range of diseases, with different causes and effects, that share a characteristic of abnormal cell growth. We can’t treat them the same.
How good is this research evidence?
One of the cited studies is on mice, while the other is in vitro (literally “in the glass”, meaning in the lab). In other words, if these effects are real they have not yet been demonstrated in humans. Another red flag.
One of the studies that don’t cite was a systematic review of the effect of acidity in the diet on humans. A systematic review is a review of all the original research coming before it, in a way that reduces bias by using clear inclusion criteria. The authors then form an opinion based on the whole body of research.
This review found only one paper assessing the impact diet and alkaline water on bladder cancer, with no effect.
There have been other systematic reviews of alkaline water for other health conditions. Researchers found no effect on osteoporosis, and at best mixed results with diabetes (though the quality of this review, and some of the papers it included, is suspect).
But given our expertise here at Critical Fitness is exercise, we are going to focus on the specific claims around exercise that have been made.
Can alkaline water help me exercise?
According to the distributors’ websites I looked at, it absolutely can. But I did notice that none of the studies posted in the research section actually looked at the effect on exercise.
Instead, they rely on opinions and testimonials – another red flag. While testimonials can be great, they are really unreliable. It’s impossible to separate the effect of the product you are using from the placebo effect, or any other changes to your lifestyle (as we discuss here).
But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, and explore how it could work. If alkaline water has an effect, it might assist in buffering against the impact of hydrogen ion build-up during high intensity exercise such as repeat sprints. This helps maintain blood and muscle pH during exercise, and may help us tolerate these sprints for longer.
Our body does this buffering naturally to maintain pH (homeostasis, remember?), but once we exercise at a certain intensity acidity in the muscles and blood increases until we stop, either voluntarily or due to fatigue. We also know that supplementing with bicarbonate has a useful effect on our ability to tolerate high exercise intensities. You need to take quite a lot though, which can be quite unpleasant.
While the pH of alkaline water used for drinking, and sodium bicarbonate, are about the same, they are unlikely to provide a similar amount of buffering. After all, alkaline water is mostly water, not the ions that provide the buffering effect itself.
Get to the point, does it work?
It should be pretty easy to prove. After all, lots of research shows the effect of bicarbonate on exercise. So what evidence is presented to show that alkaline water improves our exercise performance?
No research is cited on the websites I looked at. And in my searching I couldn’t find anything. But there were a lot of opinions!
So if we are relying on opinions, how trustworthy are the opinions? And how qualified are the people making them?
Who promotes alkaline water for exercise?
All the distributors websites for Kangen water I looked at listed the same people, and used the same quotes, when talking about the fitness benefits of alkaline water. So let’s go through these people one by one, see who they are, and check their qualifications, and what evidence is provided…
A social media influencer who owns a Kangen water filter. A couple of gossip sites stated that she has a sports medicine degree, but more reputable sites, and interviews with Paige herself, don’t mention this. Instead attention is on her entry into the fitness modelling industry in her early twenties.
In any case, no quote is provided, so we don’t actually know what her opinion is, or how trustworthy it is. The fact that she owns a filter is used as a way of convincing us the product is effective.
Apparently Shan has consulted for a number of sporting organisations. The problem is the only places I can find this mentioned is on the websites of people selling alkaline water. I was not able to find out how formal these relationships were, or how long they lasted for.
There is no mention of what qualification Shan might have, and no qualification is identified on his LinkedIn page. It also appears he has a financial interest in the product he is discussing, so I’m not convinced he’s a reliable source of information either.
At last we have a recognised fitness professional on the list. But not a highly qualified one. Jillian (of Biggest Loser fame) does not have a university education from what I can tell, but does hold (or has held) certifications from two organisations that register personal trainers.
One is from NESTA (the National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association), and the other from the AFAA (American Fitness Association of America – strange acronym, isn’t it? Anyone else think about Dodgeball?!).
Both certifications involve about 10-15 hours of online videos, some reading, then an online exam, and cost around US$500. So she is a qualified trainer, but her endorsement is not a substitute for carefully designed and conducted research.
At last someone we can confirm has seen the inside of a university. Wade (originally named McNutt) dropped out of an exercise science degree program to pursue his passion for exercise on his own terms, and was a successful bodybuilder. He also appears to have a financial interest in the product. So again, probably not a high quality source of information.
Wade is quoted extensively on this page, and makes a lot of extra claims to support alkaline water. Some of these are implausible, and all require additional follow up. This endorsement does not provide any evidence of an exercise benefit.
Not one in particular, there is just a paragraph about chiropractors! What is written here also doesn’t relate to exercise. The paragraph claims:
“Sadly, when a person is in an oxidative and/or acidic state, he/she stores toxins which can effect the adjustment/manipulation carried out by a chiropractor”.
What toxin, and how this effects the manipulation, is not explained. And how this relates to fitness or exercise is also not explained.
So this is not evidence, just more claims. There is strong evidence, however, that chiropractors often hold unscientific views. There is also yet to be a commercial product (like alkaline water), that has been clearly demonstrated to “detoxify” the body. Even if there was a detoxifying effect, we would then need to identify how this effects our exercise.
Athletes, bodybuilders, and local fitness professionals
These are more anecdotes, and anecdotes are influenced by all the other variables that have an effect on our lives. It’s impossible to identify the effect of drinking alkaline water in one person’s experience.
What can we decide about alkaline water from all this?
Keep in mind the limitations of this article. We are only looking at alkaline water, and our focus was on exercise. We’ve found no evidence to support any effect on our exercise ability.
The most likely mechanism, if there was an effect, would be buffering against hydrogen ion build up. But water won’t have the same buffering capacity as bicarbonate, so this is still highly unlikely. And in any case, it’s never been demonstrated to have this effect.
More broadly, it has also not been shown that alkaline water has any clear health effects in humans. There are one or two cherry picked studies relied on to support vague claims, but a lot of other evidence seems to be ignored.
People selling these products rely on testimonials, vague claims, dubious experts, and cherry picked data. These are all red flags that lead me to conclude that the product isn’t effective.