The shifting landscape, he says, is likely due to increased conversion of some of the proinflammatory cells to anti-inflammatory ones coupled with actual production of more anti-inflammatory macrophages. 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.
The shift ties back to the mesothelial cells and their conversations with our spleen with the help of acetylcholine. Part of the new information about mesothelial cells is that they are neuron-like, but not neurons O’Connor is quick to clarify.
“We think the cholinergic (acetylcholine) signals that we know mediate this anti-inflammatory response aren’t coming directly from the vagal nerve innervating the spleen, but from the mesothelial cells that form these connections to the spleen,” O’Connor says.
In fact, when they cut the vagal nerve, a big cranial nerve that starts in the brain and reaches into the heart, lungs and gut to help control things like a constant heart rate and food digestion, it did not impact the mesothelial cells’ neuron-like behavior.
The affect, it appears, was more local because just touching the spleen did have an effect.
When they removed or even just moved the spleen, it broke the fragile mesothelial connections and the anti-inflammatory response was lost, O’Connor says. In fact, when they only slightly moved the spleen as might occur in surgery, the previously smooth covering of mesothelial cells became lumpier and changed colors.
“We think this helps explain the cholinergic (acetylcholine) anti-inflammatory response that people have been studying for a long time,” O’Connor says.
Studies are currently underway at other institutions that, much like vagal nerve stimulation for seizures, electrically stimulate the vagal nerve to tamp down the immune response in people with rheumatoid arthritis. While there is no known direct connection between the vagal nerve and the spleen — and O’Connor and his team looked again for one — the treatment also attenuates inflammation and disease severity in rheumatoid arthritis, researchers at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research reported in 2016 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
O’Connor hopes drinking baking soda can one day produce similar results for people with autoimmune disease.
“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.”
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.
Other cells besides neurons are known to use the chemical communicator acetylcholine. Baking soda also interact with acidic ingredients like buttermilk and cocoa in cakes and other baked goods to help the batter expand and, along with heat from the oven, to rise. It can also help raise the pH in pools, is found in antacids and can help clean your teeth and tub.
The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.
Materials provided by Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University. Original written by Toni Baker. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.