Almost every home has a box or two of baking soda sitting in a kitchen cabinet somewhere, but new research from a leading medical school now says that this inexpensive, common cooking ingredient — which is also a popular home remedy for indigestion — may have a previously unknown benefit. According to the study, simply drinking a dose of baking soda in water every day can reduce the effects of rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases.
Autoimmune diseases occur when the body's immune system attacks healthy cells, mistaking them for invading bacteria or other types of infection. An estimated 2.1 million Americans suffer from one of the most common autoimmune diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, which can cause crippling joint pain.
But there are 80 known types of autoimmune disease, and for reasons scientists do not yet understand, 80 percent of those who suffer from autoimmune disorders are women.
According to researchers at Augusta University's Medical College of Georgia, some help for autoimmune sufferers may be sitting in that cardboard box in the kitchen cabinet. Baking soda, the researchers believe, sends a signal to one of the key organs in the human immune system, the spleen, telling it to scale back its immune response when confronted with non-infectious "invaders," such as food.
The research, funded by the National Institute of Health, began when scientists at the medical school started asking why baking soda has been shown to be effective not only as an antacid, one of its most common uses outside of baking, but in slowing the progression of deadly kidney disease as well, according to a report in Science Daily.
"We started thinking, how does baking soda slow progression of kidney disease?" said lead researcher Dr. Paul O'Connor, a renal physiologist — that is, a specialist in the study of kidney function — at the Georgia med school.
Their research found evidence that after a group of healthy medical students drank a bottle of water mixed with baking soda every day for two weeks, their spleens shifted from producing a type of immune cells called macrophages that promote inflammation in the body to making a type of macrophage that actually reduces inflammation.
"You are not really turning anything off or on, you are just pushing it toward one side by giving an anti-inflammatory stimulus," O'Connor said. "It's potentially a really safe way to treat inflammatory disease."
The researchers published their findings last month in the prestigious Journal of Immunology. Their study concluded that baking soda "communicates" with the spleen by stimulating mesothelial cells, the type of cells that line the surface of bodily organs. While biologists have long known that mesothelial cells serve to protect organs from damage, recent research has also shown that they have a function similar to neurons in the brain, transmitting information from cell to cell.
The anti-inflammatory response triggered by baking soda is caused by stimulating mesothelial cells that cover the spleen. Those cells then instruct the spleen to produce more anti-inflammatory cells and fewer inflammation-producing macrophages, the study found. As a result, the body becomes less inflamed, potentially easing the pain of rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases.