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Acid in blood won’t cannibalize cholesterol

DEAR DR. ROACH: I am an 84-year-old white male who is undergoing a procedure next week. My pre-op CAT scan results showed many “white spots” in both upper legs, and I’m told that this plaque is a calcium-based substance. This caused me to ask the physician assistant if the pH of a person’s blood could be turned slightly acidic so it would slowly dissolve the calcium deposits over time. The PA couldn’t answer my question, but would you? — W.L.

ANSWER: Plaque is the substance that builds up in the walls of the arteries, whether it’s the blood vessels of the heart, the brain or anywhere else in the body. Plaque consist of variable amount of fat, muscle and blood cells and calcium. The plaque is covered by a fibrous cap and the lining of the blood vessel.

If the plaque ruptures, exposing the inner contents, the body responds by rapidly forming a blood clot. This blood clot prevents blood from flowing through the vessel, often leading to death of the tissue supplied by that blood vessel. In the heart, that’s called a heart attack; in the brain, it’s a stroke; in the rest of the body, it’s just called an infarction of whatever organ is being supplied by the clotted artery.

Removing the plaque and reversing arterial disease has been the goal of medical treatment. There are some treatments known to be successful, at least some of the time: statin drugs (the connection for other cholesterol drugs is not as well established) and significant lifestyle change, including a very low fat diet, stress reduction and tobacco cessation. Many, many other treatments have been tried, but the evidence for success and reproducibility has been limited.

Unfortunately, as nice as the idea of flushing out the blockages sounds, there are two major problems. The first is that the plaque itself is not in contact with blood directly, except in the case of acute rupture and infarction; the second is that blood pH is tightly regulated. So many things go wrong inside the body with the slightest adjustment in pH. Many forms of calcium (such as bone) will dissolve in strong acid — even in vinegar, with a pH if about 2.5. The normal blood pH level is about 7.4. Levels below 6.9 or above 7.6 are incompatible with life — enzymes stop working and even the blood cells become incapable of delivering oxygen if the pH changes.

(Roach is a columnist for the North American Press Syndicate. Write to him at 628 Virginia Drive, Orlando, FL 32803.)

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