If you’ve been following my blog for a while, then you know I love health treatments derived from simple ingredients we all have in our homes.
One of my all-time favorites is baking soda. Over the years I’ve reported on the benefits of baking soda for dental hygiene, fighting colds and flu symptoms, digestive issues and emerging science suggesting potential benefits in cancer treatment.
This week I read new research on the effects of baking soda on auto-immune disease and chronic inflammation.
As a person with Grave’s disease (in remission) I always perk up when I hear about natural treatments for auto-immune conditions, so this research caught my eye.
Researchers at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, Georgia reported this month in the Journal of Immunology on the effects of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) on the spleen.
Before we dive into their findings, let’s take a quick side trip to talk about the spleen. The spleen is the Rodney Dangerfield of organs; no one seems to appreciate it. But in reality, your spleen plays a crucial role in your overall health.
Where is Your Spleen?
Your spleen is an organ about the size of your fist, and it sits under your ribcage just to the left of your stomach.
What does the spleen do?
Science does not fully understand the role of the spleen in human physiology. It is the largest organ in the lymphatic system, and we know it plays a role in filtering blood, removing old or damaged red blood cells.
The spleen also stores red blood cells and platelets and produces white blood cells in response to infection.
What does the spleen have to do with auto-immune disease?
This is where it gets interesting. When you have an infection or tissue damage, your spleen produces white blood cells (aka macrophages). White blood cells are rushed to the scene of the infection where they absorb harmful bacteria and other foreign bodies, break them down using enzymes and excrete the waste. This process is inflammatory to human tissue but necessary.
Until recently, that’s all we thought they did. But researchers have discovered that white blood cells have an internal chemical switch that changes their function. In infection-fighting mode, we call them M1 cells (Macrophage type 1). But the cells have a chemical switch that transforms them into Macrophage Type 2 cells (M2). In M2 mode they secrete anti-inflammatories.
It’s actually quite elegant. When the threat of infection is over, the same cells that caused the inflammation, are used to heal the inflammation.
Scientist thought, at first, that these macrophages were produced initially in either M1 or M2 mode. But we now know that the cells themselves are capable of switching in response to chemical and environmental signals.
Researchers believe, one potential culprit in auto-immune disease is the body’s failure to make the switch from M1 to M2 macrophages. A person with an autoimmune condition is stuck in defense mode and never gets into repair mode.
Researcher suspected the spleen plays a role here since it is the spleen that is producing many of the macrophages.
What does the new research suggest about the spleen and baking soda?
Dr. Paul O'Connor from the Medical College of Georgia’s physiology department is an expert in renal disease. Baking soda has been used for years as part of a treatment of kidney disease. This study began as an investigation into the mechanisms of this treatment.
Dr. O’Connor’s team noted an increase in M2 cells in the kidney. They then backtracked, in a sense, to see if this was a localized effect or a systemic one. They noted a similar shift from M1 to M2 cells in the bloodstream.
Pictured: Dr. Paul O'Connor, Credit: Phil Jones- Senior Photographer - University of Augusta
This led them to suspect something was going on in the spleen. During their research with rats, they noted another surprise. Just mildly moving the spleen during examination stopped the observed change in macrophages. This curious observation led them to suspect something to do, not with the spleen itself but with a surface layer of connective tissues called mesothelial cells.
Previously, we believed that mesothelial cell’s functions were largely mechanical. They connect tissues and prevent organs from rubbing against each other when we move.
However, recent research has found that mesothelial cells also have an array of sensors, called microvilli, that sense the presence of foreign invaders and signal that information to the organs in the body.
The working theory now is that somehow baking soda causes the mesothelial cells surrounding the spleen to send a “no-infection” signal to the spleen. The spleen therefore down regulates M1 cells and upregulates M2 cells.
This has the double benefit of dialing down the immune response and reducing inflammation, both of which are beneficial for many auto-immune conditions.
What’s the bottom line?
I hope I didn’t lose you with all the physiology. This is new research, so it’s too soon to draw any sweeping conclusions. But, it seems a promising line of research towards a simple, inexpensive and drug-free line of treatment for auto-immune conditions. (All of which implies that the research is quite likely to get buried by the drug companies.)
Is it safe to experiment with now?
Let me begin by reiterating my usual disclaimers. I’m not a medical doctor and cannot give you medical advice. So, any self-experimentation you do is at your own risk, and you should consult your physician (who will probably not have read the study, so here’s the link to you can share it with him or her.)
With that all clear, baking soda is pretty benign stuff and has been taken regularly for other health reasons by many people with few adverse side effects. (discussed below).
In the study, they gave healthy college students 2 grams (about ½ teaspoon) dissolved in 8 ounces of cold water daily for 2 weeks. For most people, that will be quite safe to give a try.
Arm & Hammer baking soda company actually recommends up to 6 grams daily for help with cold and flu symptoms. So, 2 grams is well below that recommendation.
My Grave’s disease is currently in remission. But I do have severe seasonal allergies which is also an autoimmune condition, and my allergy symptoms started early this year. I’m going to give this a try and see if it helps. I don’t think it can do me any harm given my health condition overall and anything drug-free to relieve my allergy symptoms is most welcome.
I’ll update you all in 2-3 weeks.
If you feel like giving it a try for your autoimmune condition (again, assuming your doctor gives the ok), please do comment on this blog post, or drop me an email. I will share your experiences along with my update.
Who shouldn’t try this?
Baking soda is a salt (1,259 milligrams of sodium in one teaspoon) and, just like table salt, in too large quantities can aggravate hypertension.
In severe cases, it can overload circulation and lead to heart failure. People who consume too much baking soda have reportedly developed blood chemistry imbalances and heart malfunction.
So, don’t try this if you have high blood pressure and no one should exceed the recommended daily consumption.
Too much baking soda can upset the body’s acid-base balance which can cause nausea and diarrhea. It may also cause stomach cramps and an increase in thirst.
If you have edema, liver disease, kidney disease or high blood pressure, you should avoid taking baking soda internally.
I also don’t recommend this kind of biohacking if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Do not allow children under the age of five to consume baking soda.
If you are on prescription drugs, consult your doctor before consuming baking soda, and make sure you speak to your doctor about drinking baking soda if you are on a sodium-restricted diet.
Some products that may interact with baking soda include aspirin and other salicylates, barbiturates, calcium supplements, corticosteroids, medications with a special coating to protect the stomach, lithium, quinidine, and diuretics.