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What is Metabolic Acidosis? - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

What keeps your blood from becoming too acidic or basic? How does the body control this? Read this lesson to learn about what happens when this balance is overthrown and the blood becomes too acidic, in a scenario called metabolic acidosis.

What is Metabolic Acidosis?

Your body needs to stay approximately around a given equilibrium to function normally. There is a little bit of wiggle room, but not much, and when things go awry, the body begins to suffer. Our blood is literally our life source - it carries oxygen to the body and helps remove waste materials so we can function properly. Under normal conditions, our blood pH is around 7.4, but sometimes this balance is thrown off and the blood becomes more acidic. This condition is called metabolic acidosis. In this scenario, the body is either producing too much acid, not getting rid of enough acid, or fails to make enough base to neutralize the acid. (A neutral pH value is 7.0; higher numbers are more basic or alkaline and lower numbers are more acidic.)

Causes of Metabolic Acidosis

Metabolic acidosis sounds like something out of a horror movie - acidic blood?! What would cause the body to do this? Well, there are a few known causes, some of which we'll discuss below.

  1. Ketoacidosis: The body creates ketones when it burns fats instead of carbohydrates for energy, and ketones make the blood acidic. When you are fasting, causing your body to switch to fats for fuel, or when you drink too much alcohol, you risk the build up of ketones in the blood. Diabetics are also at risk of this condition when the body fails to produce enough insulin.
  2. Lactic acidosis: Notice an acidosis trend here? The body's cells create lactic acid when they are deprived of oxygen. You may experience bouts of lactic acidosis during intense exercise or due to heart conditions.
  3. Renal tubular acidosis: Your kidneys are responsible for filtering waste materials out of your blood, including excess acids. When your kidneys fail to do their job due to an injury or illness, acids get left behind and can accumulate in the blood stream.
  4. Hyperchloremic acidosis: Bicarbonate is the base that helps neutralize acids in the blood. When the body is depleted of bicarbonate, due to kidney problems or dehydration, acids are not neutralized and can build up.

Symptoms of Metabolic Acidosis

Now that we know what causes metabolic acidosis, let's find out what the symptoms are! Diabetics have a unique symptom - fruity smelling breath! This provides an easy indicator for diabetics who need to monitor themselves. Symptoms for non-diabetics include some (but not necessary all) of the following:

  • rapid breathing
  • rapid heart rate
  • headaches
  • confusion
  • feelings of weakness
  • fatigue or tiredness
  • lack of appetite
  • nausea or vomiting

Symptoms of metabolic acidosis are depicted here.
metabolic acidosis symptoms

Treatment Options

Ok, now we know what metabolic acidosis is, what causes it, and what the symptoms are. The next step is to figure out how to reverse the problem before the blood becomes too acidic. However, in order to treat it, you have to know what the symptoms are! Long-term acidosis can lead to problems with the bones, kidneys, and muscles, and it will eventually lead to death if left untreated!

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