In scientific circles, NaHCO3, or sodium bicarbonate, is a substance with the more common designation of baking soda. Known as a leavening agent in baking, you’ll find it in the cupboards of most households; in the kitchen, it allows batter and dough to form air bubbles and rise.
But a recent study1 shows that baking study does much more than that. The Journal of Immunology reports that in a clinical setting, baking soda also “stimulates splenic anti-inflammatory pathways” or, in layman’s terms, fights inflammation in the spleen.
From the outset, the study premise notes that chronic inflammation is a major factor in both acute and chronic kidney injury,2 and a number of small trials and experiments indicate that taking sodium bicarbonate supplements by mouth may slow the rate of degeneration in kidney function in patients with chronic kidney disease, or CKD.3
While the scientists weren’t sure which mechanism prompted the mediation, they went with the indications that if inflammation made CKD worse, baking soda might help reduce it. According to the researchers:
“Our data indicate that oral NaHCO3 activates a splenic anti-inflammatory pathway and provides evidence that the signals that mediate this response are transmitted to the spleen via a novel neuronal-like function of mesothelial cells …
In the current study, we used flow cytometry as well as mRNA markers in isolated splenic macrophages to determine whether oral NaHCO3 intake promotes M2 macrophage polarization in the kidney and spleen …
The first major finding of our study is that oral NaHCO3 promotes a powerful anti-inflammatory response including M1 to M2 macrophage polarization and increased FOXP3+ CD4+ T regulatory cells within the spleen. We confirmed that these phenotypic changes were associated with functional anti-inflammatory effects …”4
Medical Terms, Explanations and How Baking Soda Works
Medical News Today5 offers a short clarification to explain the foundation of the study: that baking soda provides a signal to mesothelial cells, which line your internal organs and other body cavities to prevent them from sticking or rubbing together.
Meanwhile, they assure these cells that your body is doing fine; it’s not under attack, so developing an aggressive immune system and/or a harmful autoimmune response are unnecessary responses.
In addition, “Mesothelial cells communicate with the organs they line using small projections called microvilli, and the medium through which they send their message is the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.”6 Science Daily notes that when you drink baking soda, your spleen, which is part of the immune system and where some white blood cells are stored, essentially “acts like a big filter.”
“In the spleen, as well as the blood and kidneys, they found after drinking water with baking soda for two weeks, the population of immune cells called macrophages, shifted from primarily those that promote inflammation, called M1, to those that reduce it, called M2.
Macrophages, perhaps best known for their ability to consume garbage in the body like debris from injured or dead cells, are early arrivers to a call for an immune response.”7
The aforementioned macrophages refer to large, specialized cells in your immune system that form in response to an accumulation of dead cells or an infection. They “recognize,” target and wipe out such cells, acting in a way that helps explain how they got their name. The term macrophage is formed by combining the Greek terms “makro,” which means big, and “phagein,” meaning eat.8
A Daily Dose of Baking Soda
Paul O’Connor, a renal physiologist at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University (MCG), condenses the study’s findings with the comment that “Certainly drinking bicarbonate affects the spleen and we think it’s through the mesothelial cells.”9
One of the jobs kidneys perform involves balancing such vital compounds as sodium, acid and potassium, O’Connor maintains. One problem that crops up with kidney disease, besides diminished function, is excess acid in the blood, which often results in additional conditions such as heart disease.
O’Connor describes the mechanism as a system that’s basically set up for failure, but that baking soda emerges as a “cheap, over-the-counter antacid” that fights inflammation at the same time. The study involved healthy medical students at MCG’s Georgia Prevention Institute, who drank a bottle of water with baking soda added.
The shift from inflammatory to an anti-inflammatory profile was widespread and plain to see, from the kidneys to the spleen to the peripheral blood, likely due to the increased levels of conversion from pro-inflammatory to anti-inflammatory cells, as well as outright productions of more anti-inflammatory macrophages. Science Daily adds:
“The scientists also saw a shift in other immune cell types, like more regulatory T cells, which generally drive down the immune response and help keep the immune system from attacking our own tissues. That anti-inflammatory shift was sustained for at least four hours in humans and three days in rats.”10
Citing the involvement of acetylcholine, O’Connor explains that the “cholinergic” signaling, again, is not from the vagal nerve in the spleen, but from the mesothelial cells forming the connections to it. Besides causing acidic ingredients like buttermilk and cocoa used in baked goods to expand the batter, baking soda has numerous other applications for health, cleaning and personal hygiene.
Further studies are ongoing in other universities and clinical settings to observe how vagal nerve stimulation for seizures is similar to the way the vagal nerve is stimulated electronically to “tamp down” the immune response in individuals suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Incidentally, Science Daily notes:
“The spleen also got bigger with consuming baking soda, the scientists think because of the anti-inflammatory stimulus it produces. Infection also can increase spleen size and physicians often palpate the spleen when concerned about a big infection.”11
The featured study at MCG was performed first on rats, then on humans, involving the consumption of water with baking soda for two weeks. What the researchers found was a “triggered” response in their stomachs to manufacture the acid needed to help them digest their next meal.12
Your Spleen’s Natural Reaction When Baking Soda Is Applied
Earlier, mesothelial cells were described as functioning as buffers, as they create a slippery layer to protect cell walls from damage if they should rub together, a frequent cause of inflammation.
As O’Connor states, “You are not really turning anything off or on, you are just pushing it toward one side by giving an anti-inflammatory stimulus.”13 (In this case, Science Daily explains, away from harmful inflammation.)
The study participants were all healthy, but O’Connor says he hopes that someday, the same type of anti-inflammatory positive response will help people suffering from autoimmune disorders, and adds, “It’s potentially a really safe way to treat inflammatory disease.”
But of course, there’s nothing to prevent you from using baking soda, as it’s a natural substance used by people for centuries for a number of health conditions, and more.
History of Baking Soda and Other Uses for Health and Otherwise
Today, you’ll find baking soda not only in most household cupboards, but refrigerators because it has the ability to absorb odors. But before your average baker had baking soda to rely on to make cakes and breads light and airy, the primary agent used was yeast, according to University Health News:
“Prior to the 18th century, people had to spend between 12 and 24 hours making yeast – not an easy process without refrigerators and other equipment that we’re lucky to have today. It wasn’t uncommon for yeast not to turn out the way it was supposed to because the temperature was either too cold or too hot.
Sometimes, contamination from bacteria ruined the entire process. Baking soda revolutionized this process because bakers no longer had to do rigorous work in order for a cake to rise.”14
Something a generation of individuals from the 19th century had passed down was a concoction known as “vinegar punch,” made from apple cider vinegar mixed with a teaspoon of baking soda, which required a quick stir and a quick gulp. It was often used for gastrointestinal discomfort and usually elicited relief from pain, upset stomach, heartburn, acid reflux and even diarrhea.
But there’s more to the acidic environment that baking soda creates for improved health than an old wives’ tale. One study notes that because it helps raise your pH, it can ease urinary tract infections, or UTIs.15 In addition, because your circulatory system helps supply blood to your vital organs, baking soda can help detoxify your blood and help improve your blood flow.
You can add one-half teaspoon to half a glass of water (about 4 ounces), stir until it’s completely dissolved, and repeat no more than three times per day, and no more than 7 one-half teaspoons in any given 24-hour period.16
More Studies and Advice Regarding Baking Soda Solution Use
Another study17 notes that baking soda has been useful for runners and other athletes for decades, as the soda increases the buffer-like action of lactic acid. People who engage in intense exercise don’t experience the accumulation of lactate and subsequent muscle pain, which naturally results in better and more comfortable workouts.
It’s known that baking soda can stand up to Streptococcus mutans bacteria that can cause tooth decay.18 You can use it on your toothbrush to whiten your teeth, as well, which is less expensive than purchasing a toothpaste with baking soda in it.
Leaving it on for five minutes further whitens teeth, but should be followed by a vigorous rinse to avoid a gritty feeling; this method should be used no more frequently than once per week.
According to research at the University of California, if you notice you’re experiencing an irregular heartbeat, or if you’re taking thyroid medication, starting on a regimen that includes baking soda is not advised.19 If you notice itching, hives, swelling or tingling in your mouth or throat, stomach pain, headache or shortness of breath after using a baking soda solution orally, discontinue use.