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Why Baking Soda Can Be Essential for Rescuing Earthquake Survivors

baking soda uses

Story at-a-glance -

  • Earthquake survivors may suffer from crush syndrome, in which muscle breakdown blocks kidney function
  • A baking soda solution may be given to survivors as a remedy to help reduce acidity in the blood and dissolve myoglobin, a protein that may block kidney filtration after a crush injury
  • A solution containing baking soda may be given to victims even before they’ve been extricated from the rubble

By Dr. Mercola

Sodium bicarbonate, better known as baking soda, is one of the most versatile substances on Earth. Not only can you keep a box in your refrigerator to absorb odors, but you can also keep a box in your bathroom for cleaning and another in your pantry for baking.

This modest molecule, the monosodium salt of carbonic acid, also has alkalinizing and electrolyte replacement properties.1 For a product that can be purchased for under $1 a box, those are impressive feats, ones that may even prove to be life saving for people injured in an earthquake.

Baking Soda Helps Treat ‘Crush Syndrome’ in Earthquake Survivors

Getting trapped under rubble in an earthquake poses serious health risks beyond injuries like broken bones and internal bleeding. It’s estimated that up to 15 percent of hospitalized earthquake survivors suffer from crush syndrome, also known as traumatic rhabdomyolysis .2

When a muscle is crushed it sends a flood of myoglobin into your bloodstream. Myoglobin is a protein that helps move oxygen in your muscles. Ordinarily, any myoglobin that ends up in your bloodstream becomes bound to other proteins, making it too large to fit into your kidney’s filtration system (tubules).

In a crush injury, however, so much myoglobin enters your blood that there’s not enough protein to bind with it, which means myglobin ends up blocking your kidney’s tubules.

The problem is made worse by lack of water, which worsens the buildup on your kidneys. The end result is often kidney failure. STAT reported:3

“ … [T]hat one-two punch on the kidneys throws the body’s chemistry completely out of whack. The kidneys can no longer filter out acid, and so the blood becomes highly acidic and potassium pours out of cells into the veins.

The kidneys can’t filter that out either, and too much potassium throws off the electrical currents that keep the heart beating regularly.”

Baking Soda to the Rescue

What does baking soda have to do with crush syndrome? It’s often given to survivors as a remedy to help reduce acidity in the blood and dissolve myoglobin. A solution containing baking soda may be given to victims even before they’ve been extricated from the rubble.

Dr. Mark Pearlmutter, chair of emergency medicine for Steward Health Care Network in the Boston area, told STAT:4

“People who are now on the scene can start treating patients while they are still trapped … They may have an arm that they have access to, and can start giving the patient fluid, and they can proactively give bicarbonate.”

As noted by The Journal of Emergency Medicine, “Early, aggressive resuscitation in the prehospital setting, before extrication if possible, is recommended to reduce the complications of crush syndrome.”5

In addition to baking soda, intravenous saline solution is often given to prevent dehydration and help dilute myoglobin buildup.

One study reviewed nine patients with crush syndrome due to a building collapse who were given a solution of mannitol (a sugar alcohol) and bicarbonate upon hospital admission. Only two of them developed acute kidney failure, none of them had permanent kidney damage and all survived.6

Some Mixed Data on the Use of Baking Soda for Crush Syndrome

Other data regarding the use of baking soda in crush syndrome is mixed. For instance, research published in The Journal of Trauma found no difference in rates of kidney failure, need for dialysis or mortality in crush-syndrome patients given bicarbonate-mannitol solutions compared to those who were not.7

Another study, a systematic review published in Emergency Medical Journal, found no high-quality evidence to support the use of bicarbonate infusions over saline alone.8

Despite the mixed data, researchers writing in the Journal of Emergency Medicine suggest the use of baking soda in crush syndrome may help — and probably won’t hurt — and should continue until research proves otherwise. They noted:9

“Regardless [of the mixed data], many authors continue to recommend this protocol. It is likely reasonable to provide bicarbonate and mannitol to patients with traumatic rhabdomyolysis, unless the patient has a contraindication.

This resuscitation should continue until the clinical and biochemical evidence of myoglobinuria resolves.”

Other Medical Uses for Baking Soda

In its natural form baking soda is known as nahcolite, which is part of the natural mineral natron. Natron, which contains large amounts of sodium bicarbonate, has been used since ancient times.

The Egyptians used natron as a soap for cleansing purposes, for instance. However, it wasn't until 1846 that Dr. Austin Church and John Dwight began to manufacture and sell the compound we know as baking soda today.

By the 1860s, baking soda was featured in published cookbooks but was still primarily known as a cooking additive.10 By the 1920s, however, its versatility was expanded on, and by the 1930s it was widely advertised as a "proven medical agent."

Even today, most over-the-counter antacids contain some form of bicarbonate. Baking soda works by immediately neutralizing stomach acid, helping to relieve heartburn, indigestion and even ulcer pain.

I have personally recommended baking soda to many, including family members, for this purpose and have been surprised how remarkably effective it is.

Dosing is typically one-half teaspoon fully dissolved in half a glass of water, taken every two hours (do not take more than seven one-half teaspoons in 24 hours, or three one-half teaspoons if you’re over 60).11

This should only be used as an occasional (not chronic) treatment, however, and be careful not to consume excessive amounts, which can cause serious electrolyte and acid/base imbalances.12

‘Soda Doping’ — Don’t Try This at Home

Distance runners have long engaged in a practice known as "soda doping" — or taking baking soda capsules — before races to enhance performance, a measure that's thought to work similarly to carbohydrate loading.

As an alkali substance, baking soda may increase the pH of your blood, helping to offset the acidity produced in muscles during intense activity. Vigorous running and swimming are examples of activities that produce lactic acid rapidly in your muscles, which may then be potentially offset by consuming baking soda.

This tactic has even been shown to improve speed among swimmers.13 While I don't suggest you try this at home, it's another example of baking soda benefits.

3 Reasons to Keep Baking Soda in Your Medicine Cabinet

Baking soda is an excellent inexpensive and safe remedy to keep on hand for a number of minor injuries. Among them:

1. Insect Bites and Poison Ivy

Apply a paste made of baking soda and water to insect bites to help relieve itching. You can also try rubbing the dry powder onto your skin. This is also effective for itchy rashes and poison ivy. Baking soda helps to relieve minor skin irritation and itching by neutralizing toxins and irritants on your skin’s surface.14

2. Splinter Removal

Add 1 tablespoon of baking soda to a small glass of water then soak the affected area twice a day. Many splinters will come out on their own after a couple of days using this treatment.

3. Sunburn Remedy

Add one-half cup of baking soda to lukewarm bathwater then soak in the tub for natural relief. For extra relief, when you get out, let your skin air dry rather than toweling off the excess baking soda. You can also add a mixture of baking soda and water to a cool compress and apply it directly to the sunburned skin.

You Can Even Add Baking Soda to Your Personal Hygiene Routine

Another way to take advantage of baking soda is to use it during your personal hygiene routine. When added to toothpaste, baking soda enhances the removal of plaque.15 It has a mild abrasive action that helps to remove plaque and polish, clean and deodorize your teeth.16

To make your own baking soda tooth and gum paste, use a mixture of six parts of baking soda to one part of sea salt. Place them in a blender and mix for 30 seconds, then place in a container to use. Wet the tip of your index finger and place a small amount of the salt and soda mixture on your gums.

Starting with the upper outside gums and then the inside of the upper, followed by the lower outside of the gums then the lower inside, rub the mixture onto your teeth and gums. Spit out the excess. After 15 minutes rinse your mouth.

Baking soda also works as a natural deodorant. You can sprinkle the powder directly onto your underarms or create a paste by mixing a bit of baking soda with water. It also makes a wonderful foot product. Add 3 tablespoons of baking soda to a tub of warm water for an invigorating foot soak. You can scrub your feet with a baking soda paste for additional exfoliation.

A paste made from three parts of baking soda combined with one part water can be used as an exfoliator for your face and body too. It's natural, inexpensive and gentle enough to use every day. From helping to save the lives of earthquake victims to soothing insect bites and cleaning your teeth, the uses for baking soda are truly limitless. If you have any additional uses for baking soda, feel free to share them in the comments below.