What Is Alkaline Water, and Can It Really Help With Heartburn?

The effects are inconclusive, and more studies are needed.

Alkaline water has been touted for its supposed health benefits. Among those perks is the belief that it can help neutralize stomach acid and relieve symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux, or heartburn. But is this claim legitimate?

Female chemist holding litmus paper in hands

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What Is Alkaline Water?

All liquid solutions have a pH level, which refers to how acidic it is. The pH scale ranges from 1 (the most acidic) to 14 (the least acidic and most alkaline). Tap and bottled water have a pH of around 7, which is neutral, although it can vary slightly in either direction.

Waters marketed as alkaline have a higher pH—usually between 8 and 9. They may have nutrients added to them to reach the desired pH, according to the Mayo Clinic. Consumers can also buy ionizing pitchers, or filters that attach to a faucet to make regular tap water alkaline.

What's Behind the Heartburn Claims?

Your body also has its own pH levels. Different parts of your anatomy have different degrees of acidity, to aid in their function. Blood, for example, has a pH of 7.35 to 7.45. Stomach acid has a pH from 1.5 to 3.5, and the skin has a pH of 4 to 6.5.

The alkaline water industry claims that drinking its product can minimize the symptoms associated with heartburn, which happens when stomach acid flows backward into the esophagus. Proponents say that their products can neutralize low pH and high acidity, helping to relieve the burning sensation in your chest and throat.

Whether our bodies need help in this area is debatable. "We have an incredibly sophisticated machinery to keep the pH levels where they should be throughout the body, and there's not a lot that you can do, eat, or drink to change that," said Evan Dellon, MD, a gastroenterologist and associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

But several small studies have indicated some neutralization of stomach acid, in test tubes, anyway. One 2012 study published in the Annals of Otology, Rhinology & Laryngology found that water with a pH of 8.8 did seem to inactivate pepsin, an enzyme related to the production of hydrochloric acid (the kind found in your stomach). The water also had a buffering effect against hydrochloric acid itself, though the experiments were done in the lab and not on human beings.

"These in vitro data suggest that alkaline water may be a useful, risk-free adjunctive treatment for reflux disease," the study authors wrote, although they also stated that more research was needed, including studies on people.

Also, a 2017 study published in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head Neck Surgery compared the effects of alkaline water; a plant-based, Mediterranean-style diet; and standard reflux medications and treatments. The researchers found that the symptoms of reflux improved with alkaline water and a plant-based diet.

"We really have no evidence that (alkaline water) works in real-life scenarios," said Dr. Dellon, who was not involved in the above studies. "Meanwhile, we do have many other reflux treatments that are well studied and pretty effective for people."

What Are Tried-and-True Treatments for Heartburn?

Drinking an alkaline solution may neutralize heartburn's acidic fluid for a few minutes, but it won't solve the underlying problem of why it's there in the first place.

"It's no different than taking a Tums or drinking a lot of milk—which some people with reflux like to do because milk is also slightly alkaline," said Dr. Dellon.

Drinking regular water may provide some relief as well. "It will raise the pH of your stomach, dilute the acid, and clear out the esophagus—so there's lots of good reasons to drink water in general and to stay hydrated," he said.

Patricia Raymond, MD, a physician in Norfolk, Virginia, and fellow of the American College of Gastroenterology, said her patients ask her about the alkaline diet and alkaline water as alternative treatments for reflux, but she doesn't recommend either.

"I do support complementary medicine when we know that it can actually help," said Dr. Raymond. "But the medical opinion is really lacking on alkaline water. We're not excited about it as a potential treatment."

If you do drink alkaline water (which is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration) or are considering it, talk to your healthcare provider about the potential risks and benefits. If you suffer from frequent heartburn, ask about treatment options that address the underlying problem, not just the symptoms.

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