I’ve tried a lot of things to combat the symptoms of whatever I have, call it chronic fatigue syndrome, myalgic encephalomyelitis, systemic exertional intolerance disorder, fibromyalgia, vitamin deficiency, leaky gut…
And I’m still trying.
Clearly nothing I’ve discovered thus far has done enough to call off the search. However last week I caught a glimpse of an incredibly cheap ray of light, coming from my pantry of all places.
One morning I kicked my rusty brain into gear and slowly rumbled through a pretty straightforward logical sequence. I’ve heard a lot lately about post exertional malaise (PEM) being related to acid production in the muscles. The work of Julia Newton in the UK comes to mind. I’m no expert in muscle physiology but my understanding is that muscles produce lactic acid when they’re no longer able to generate energy aerobically (with oxygen). This is a completely normal reaction but is blown out of proportion for CFS sufferers who show up to 20x more acidity in their muscles. There is apparently work being done on why this may be and how we might overcome it.
I suppose you could try to correct the problem by pumping more oxygen in or fixing whatever is causing the O2 troubles that have been observed in CFS. Perhaps that’s why hyperbaric oxygen treatment is effect for our FM cousins. Alternatively, if you don’t know why it’s happening (which we don’t) you could try to suck the acid out! While that might sound pretty brutal there is actually an incredibly simple and inexpensive way to at least neutralize some of the acid.
Take yourself back to grade nine, science class where you learned about pH. On one end of the scale are your acids (pH less than 7) and on the other end are your bases (pH greater than 7). Mix an equally acidic substance with an equally basic substance and what do you get? Answer: neutrality. While undoubtedly an oversimplification I wondered if simply increasing the pH of my body (making it alkaline/basic) would help reduce the buildup of acid in my muscles. What a revolutionary idea!! It couldn’t possibly work. Or could it?
Turns out athletes have been doing this for years and it is believed to increase performance. The theory is quite simple. If the environment that your muscles are bathing in is alkaline than when they begin to create lactic acid the acid will immediately be neutralized. This prevents the acid from building up as fast and allows you to keep working. And how do they do this? What kind of crazy drugs are necessary to neutralize acid?
Turns out it costs about 89 cents and is likely already in your cupboard. It’s called sodium bicarbonate, aka, baking soda. That’s right, baking soda (NOT baking powder). The article referenced above suggests that elite athletes using ‘sodium bicarbonate loading’ might be able to increase performance by a few percentage points whereas more ordinary people may not notice the difference. However, if you’re familiar with the concept of an inverted U-shaped function CFS sufferers would not be normal. They’d be at the extreme low end of the curve. Normal people would be in the middle and athletes at the top. I bring that up because we have the most potential to gain from such an intervention. Our performance in nil and any improvement in the acid-logged condition of our muscles could result in huge improvements. And, if you can believe it, I think it works!
I’m not one of the unfortunate bed-bound CFS sufferers. I’m able to slowly bicycle my son to daycare once a week, maybe twice, and usually only in the morning or afternoon, not both. It’s a couple kilometers with no hills. I can feel it in my quads. I know when to quit and when to expect the inevitable fogginess and fatigue several days later. Last week I started taking small doses of baking soda in water. That week I biked with my son every day! Not just in the morning but also in the afternoon. I’d say I did 5 times the amount of exercise I normally do or more. Remarkably, I never hit the wall. I could feel it in my legs, but just slightly. I was also less foggy overall and felt ambitious. I’m still in a state of disbelief that I could respond better to baking soda than any of the fancy supplements and procedures I’ve tried previously.
Reading more about it, I probably shouldn’t be overly surprised. Changes in pH are known to influence all sorts of bodily processes and it has been claimed to be the single most important factor in most chemical reactions. Drinking baking soda in water has been shown to reduce the pH of urine quite effectively. In fact, patients with kidney troubles who can experience acidosis (too much acid in their system) are often given baking soda because it neutralizes the acid. Interestingly, diet is a huge contributor to the pH balance of our bodies. Leafy green vegetables promote an alkaline system and typical Western diets unfortunately promote an acidic system. Perhaps this is why changes to diet can positively influence symptoms and so many other things.
So… where to go from here? Well, I’m certainly going to keep going with the baking soda. But for anyone interested you need to be careful because you can also neutralize your stomach acid. I’m going to start measuring my pH and recording my activity levels and symptoms… that is, I’m going to start another study; the BAKING SODA study! It’ll be a while before it’s ready for others to join but if you’re interested drop me a line and we can try to get your data logged right away.