Cancer: The pH Hypothesis
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | April 13, 2007

The Internet is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because you can find out information about any topic--the curse is that you have no idea how accurate the information may be.

One of the prevailing theories of cancer that travels around the Internet is that cancer won’t grow in an alkaline environment; therefore if the pH of the body can be made more alkaline, a person won’t get cancer. That was the basis of the coral-calcium phenomenon of a few years ago.

Several questions arise:
  • Where did this theory originate?
  • Is it accurate?
  • And if it is, how can the pH of the body be changed?
That’s the focus of this Newsletter.

The Theory
Dr. Otto Warburg was a brilliant scientist who spent his life studying cellular respiration, the scientific term for how cells use oxygen to produce energy and sustain life. When I say he’s brilliant, it may be an understatement--he won a Nobel Prize for his work in 1931 and was nominated numerous other times. His work led him to examine differences in energy production between normal cells and cancer cells.

Most of the theory about pH and cancer seems to be attributed to a talk Warburg gave to other Nobel Prize winners in Lindau, Germany, in 1966. The only places his speech appears are on websites of people and companies that are promoting alkalizing the body as a treatment for cancer.

Having read several versions of the speech, I found that Warburg himself never talks about pH, only about cancer cells using fermentation to produce energy. What Warburg concluded from his experiments was that instead of the normal aerobic (oxygen-using) means of producing energy, cancer cells use fermentation, which doesn’t need oxygen. In other words, he was saying that cancer will grow without oxygen being necessary to produce energy. He further states that the changes in how the cells produce energy permanently transform the cells and their behavior.

I want to be clear that this is my interpretation of how Warburg’s work relates to the alkalinity theory of cancer. Based on what’s being stated on the Internet, it’s the only explanation that makes sense. If cancer cells use fermentation to produce energy, the result is a by-product called lactic acid, which you’ve probably heard about before--muscle cells also produce lactic acid in a process called glycolysis when we exercise at a high rate.

This build-up of lactic acid from cancer cells yields a lower pH. In other words, it’s a more acidic environment. Therefore, the solution is to change the body’s environment from acidic to alkaline (basic) in order to prevent and treat cancer. That’s the theory promoted on the Internet.

The Problem
The problem with this reasoning is simple: how does a very localized and incredibly small group of cells using fermentation affect the pH of the entire body? The truth is we make cancer cells every day, and every day the body’s immune system eliminates them. How can a few cells, at least initially, affect the entire body?

We know today that cancer cells use glycolysis as well as aerobic metabolism to produce energy (1). In fact, this is termed the Warburg Effect. (The energy production of cancer cells is the subject of many research studies--if the power plant of cancer cells, and cancer cells only, could be turned off, the cancer would die.) While one of the end products of glycolysis is lactic acid, pyruvic acid is another metabolite of that respiration and can be used to produce energy aerobically. But that doesn’t change the problem of magnitude. It just doesn’t work to have so few cells change the entire body’s pH.

In addition, there’s no evidence that taking something alkaline such as a calcium supplement will change the body’s pH. While it may neutralize stomach acid, it won’t change the entire body.

Bottom Line
There’s no evidence that changing the body’s pH will eliminate cancer or prevent it from developing. But let’s say that you feel that if there’s a shadow of truth to this pH theory, it may be something worth pursuing. What could you do?

Very simple: eat less meat and more fresh vegetables and fruit. In a number of studies, that seems to be the only way to change the pH of the body and make it very slightly more alkaline. Because those who eat more vegetables and fruit have cancer less often, that’s probably a wise lifestyle choice--whether it has anything to do with the body’s pH or not.

Any way you look at it, your mother was right: eat your vegetables. They’re good for you in many ways.

  1. Pedersen PL. The cancer cell's "power plants" as promising therapeutic targets: An overview. J Bioenerg Biomembr. 2007 Apr 3; [Epub ahead of print].
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