Although researchers are still in the early stages of testing, a new study holds promise for people with autoimmune disorders. There's the potential that something as simple as a daily dose of baking soda in water could reduce the inflammation of diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. But there's still a whole lot of research to be done.
Researchers at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University found that when rats or healthy people digest an antacid solution of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and water, it triggers the stomach to make more acid to get ready to digest a meal.
In addition, they theorize, the solution prompts the spleen to stay calm instead of mounting a protective immune response. The researchers found that mesothelial cells are responsible for mediating the body's signals in that way.
Mesothelial cells line all the organs, including the spleen, helping them slide effortlessly against each other. They also function as immune cells.
"We think they talk to each other and tell the spleen what to do," Dr. Paul O'Connor, renal physiologist in the Medical College of Georgia Department of Physiology at Augusta University and the study's lead author, tells MNN.
When baking soda is involved, these cells may tell the organ that there's no need to mount an attack.
These cells calm the spleen's immune response, telling it, "It’s probably a hamburger, not a bacterial infection," O'Connor says. So the spleen doesn't activate an army of white blood cells, and instead promotes an anti-inflammatory environment.
How it likely works
Clinical trials have shown that baking soda can slow the progression of kidney disease, so O'Connor and his team began by studying how baking soda works to do that. From there, they shifted to the spleen.
"We were allowing our rodents to drink baking soda for a renal study and we realized we had an anti-inflammatory response in the kidney and realized the spleen probably had the same mechanism," he says.
The vagal nerve, a large cranial nerve that helps control things like heart rate and digestion, stimulates stomach acid secretion. Researchers think baking soda acts in the same way.
"We think probably what we’ve done is that if you drink baking soda, it also stimulates stomach acid secretion because you have to return stomach to a more acid state," O'Connor says. "Perhaps this mechanism signals the spleen if you’ve had a meal. We think that’s how it works, but it’s lively speculation."
The team's initial study was published in the Journal of Immunology.
Why you shouldn't drink baking soda now
Although the idea is intriguing, you shouldn't start mixing up baking soda cocktails at this point. Many people have been asking O'Connor for dosages, and he's been telling them to put on the brakes. So far, the baking soda solution has only been tested on rodents and people without inflammation.
There's no advantage to trying it in the meantime, he says. Baking soda has high levels of sodium, which is linked to heart, kidney and other issues.
"You certainly shouldn’t go start drinking baking soda and water without consulting a physician. I certainly wouldn’t advise people trying this at home," he says.
Currently, people with autoimmune issues treat inflammation with medications, and sometimes alternative treatments like turmeric are also considered, says rheumatologist Rajat Bhatt, M.D. of Kadlec Rheumatology in Kennewick, Washington, who was not involved in the study.
Bhatt tells MNN that it's too early to speculate if the research has potential to help prevent inflammation.
"Research needs to be tested out in clinical trials," he says. "[It's] too preliminary based on rat studies."
O'Connor, however, believes the research is promising because, if it works, it could offer a safe alternative to medication.
"You are not really turning anything off or on, you are just pushing it toward one side by giving an anti-inflammatory stimulus," he says, in this case, away from harmful inflammation. "It's potentially a really safe way to treat inflammatory disease."