From making cookies to cleaning the stove, baking soda has been a kitchen staple for generations. But its use extends far beyond leavening dough and scrubbing away stains.
For many, baking soda is a home remedy for common ailments like coughs, sunburn, muscle aches, and urinary tract infections. Naturopathic physicians also prescribe it for heartburn, ulcer pain, and kidney disease.
New, early research reveals baking soda might even help people with autoimmune and inflammatory diseases curb their pain and inflammation.
The new discovery happened when scientists studied the use of baking soda in kidney disease. Kidney disease can progress to the point where it develops into metabolic acidosis, a fancy way of saying that the body is making too much acid that it can’t get rid of safely. Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), which is highly alkaline, prevents metabolic acidosis.
But surprisingly, doctors discovered that even in patients without acidosis, baking soda slowed the progression of kidney disease. The reason? Baking soda positively affected immune response.
Baking Soda Improves Immune Response Throughout the Body
To explore this in more depth, scientists at the Medical College of Georgia tested baking soda for two weeks in rodents and saw positive effects on immune cells.
Next, scientists gave 12 young, healthy human volunteers a one-off, two-gram dose dissolved in 250 mL of bottled water.
They discovered that baking soda triggers the stomach to produce more acid. This is communicated to mesothelial cells in the spleen. Mesothelial cells form a protective lining for body cavities and organs including the digestive tract.
Mesothelial cells also have tiny finger-like projections called microvilli. These warn the tissues they cover that an invader has been detected, thereby priming the immune system for action.
However, when food has been ingested the message seems to be, as lead researcher Paul O’Connor put it, “It’s most likely a hamburger, not a bacterial infection.”
In contrast, when baking soda has been ingested and signals mesothelial cells to transmit a message from the gut to the spleen, something else takes place.
Activates Immune Cells Everywhere
The ingestion of baking soda leads to the activation of a system called the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway.
The scientists found that after rodents consumed baking soda it caused a shift in immune cells called macrophages. Some macrophages promote inflammation and others curb inflammation. Scientists reported reduced numbers of inflammatory macrophages and increased numbers of anti-inflammatory macrophages.
And this didn’t just occur in the spleen. “The shift from inflammatory to an anti-inflammatory profile is happening everywhere,” said Dr. O’Connor. “We saw it in the kidneys, we saw it in the spleen, now we see it in the peripheral blood.”
Macrophages were not the only type of immune cell to be activated. In the rodents, regulatory T cells doubled after three days. These T cells help prevent the immune system from attacking its own tissues.
Even in the volunteers researchers saw the same type of immune changes after just three hours, suggesting a similar anti-inflammatory response.
Dr. O’Connor believes “it’s potentially a really safe way to treat inflammatory disease” and may lower the kind of destructive inflammation seen in autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
However, he emphasized they carried out a basic scientific study and don’t yet have any convincing evidence that baking soda can achieve this. I agree with Dr. O’Connor’s cautionary stance.
While this new research is exciting, before this I have not been impressed with the scientific evidence on baking soda’s benefits against inflammation in the human body. Most of it consists of case studies from naturopathic doctors or testimonials from do-it-yourself patients.
What’s more, consuming too much baking soda can be harmful and even small amounts can be harmful for certain people, so it would be premature to self-medicate without a naturopathic physician’s help until more is known.
The research did suggest a solution to another mystery that’s worth noting.
Why Electrostimulation Eases Arthritis and Other Painful Conditions
It has been known for some time that electrostimulation of the vagus nerve — the very long nerve that runs between the brain and the abdomen — also activates the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway.
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) has shown promising results in treating chronic inflammatory disorders including rheumatoid arthritis, sepsis, lung injury and diabetes. It’s also used to control fibromyalgia pain and migraines.
Researchers didn’t understand the signaling pathway and mechanism by which the stimulation reduces inflammation, but they did suspect it originated primarily in the spleen. Yet the vagus nerve doesn’t extend to the spleen.
This study provides an explanation because VNS also causes the stomach to secrete acid. So it looks like baking soda and VNS have a common mechanism.
Research into VNS is far more developed than baking soda, and the FDA has already approved its use in epilepsy and depression. What’s more, researchers are currently testing VNS in a large number of clinical trials as treatment for various autoimmune and chronic inflammatory disorders.
It’s quite likely that VNS will be approved for one of these conditions in the not too distant future. Of course, the same cannot be said for baking soda. Perhaps one day the FDA will embrace the clinical study of more affordable, natural treatments that anyone can access at home, but I’m not holding my breath.