The human body is made to function under tightly regulated conditions. To keep this regulation and balance in check, a number of substances in our blood play an important role. Bicarbonate, or carbon dioxide dissolved in the blood, is an ion present in our blood that maintains both the acid-base balance (pH) and the electrolyte balance.
Why is Bicarbonate So Important?
Bicarbonate ion regulates the pH of our blood and our cells (keeping it strictly between pH 7.35 to 7.45), and also the electrolyte balance in our system.
The four most important electrolytes in our system are sodium, chloride, potassium and bicarbonate, and an imbalance in any of these can affect our state of health in multiple ways. Usually they are all measured as part of a metabolic screening blood test and the results interpreted together to make more sense of any imbalance.
The acid-base balance of the blood is also controlled by these ions. Bicarbonate, being alkaline, imparts a basic pH value to the blood. Changes in the level of this ion can therefore shift the pH of the blood as well.
Checking for Bicarbonate Levels in the Blood
The bicarbonate test gives an accurate measurement of the amount of bicarbonate in the blood. This test is performed as a routine health-screening test or may be ordered by your doctor when specific acid-base imbalance symptoms arise.
Tracking bicarbonate levels is important when symptoms such as persistent vomiting, diarrhoea, difficulty in breathing and extreme lethargy arise.
A bicarbonate test tells the doctor if you are in a state of acidosis (decreased pH of the blood) or alkalosis (increased pH of the blood). In general, disease conditions that affect the lungs and the kidney can cause a change in bicarbonate levels.
Low bicarbonate levels may arise due to kidney disease, shock, diarrhoea, Addison’s disease, aspirin overdose or heavy alcohol ingestion. On the other hand, a high bicarbonate level can be a result of lung diseases, prolonged vomiting or Cushing’s syndrome.
How Does an Athlete Benefit from Bicarbonate Testing?
The optimal pH of muscles, in contrast to blood, is around 7.0. When this pH is maintained, the muscle is able to perform to its optimum capacity as well.
During an extensive workout, the oxygen supply runs short and the muscles shifts from an aerobic pathway to an anaerobic one, the end product of which is the production of lactic acid. Lactic acid, as the name implies, is an acid that lowers down the pH of the muscles below the optimum pH 7.0.
Studies have found that one way to correct this pH imbalance is to take sodium bicarbonate supplements (up to 200mg/kg body weight) an hour before workout. Sodium bicarbonate is an alkaline salt, which can raise the pH of an exercising muscle back to normal. These supplements have also shown a significant benefit in high intensity interval training.
Correcting Bicarbonate Imbalances
If you have been experiencing fluctuating bicarbonate levels, some dietary modifications may help you keep these levels in check, although these are still medically unproven.
Low bicarbonate levels are best managed by dietary changes, while diet may not be as helpful in a state of high bicarbonate levels. Foods that are rich in alkali should be included in the everyday diet. Some examples of alkali-rich foods are soy, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, nuts, beans and lentils.
The bicarbonate ion plays an essential role in maintaining the pH and electrolyte balance in our blood. Any fluctuations in its levels can cause mild to severe symptoms. Therefore, it is important to take a bicarbonate test as soon as you can, or when you or your doctor suspect an imbalance in your bicarbonate level.
If you’re interested in learning more about bicarbonate levels and the potential role of your diet, read on more about it in our biomarker post here!