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Bicarbonate to boost performance and peptides to slow eating

by Chris Gorski
May 19, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 16


Bicarb benefits without the belch?

A sad athlete contemplates a box of baking soda.
Credit: Tada Images/Shutterstock/C&EN
Double-edged soda: Baking soda helps buffer acid in the blood during intense exercise but can cause digestive symptoms to bubble up . . . or down.

For athletes, baking soda isn’t something to be thrown into a cake or forgotten in the back of the refrigerator. It’s an established aid for enhancing performance during exercise. Ingesting baking soda raises blood pH and readies the body to buffer the acidity that can build up within muscles during intense exercise. The supermarket staple is known to boost performance in events lasting less than 8 min or so across a range of sports (J. Int. Soc. Sports Nutr. 2022, DOI: 10.1186/s12970-021-00469-7). The 1% or better bump it can provide in anerobic performance is significant in elite competition.

That benefit comes at a price. It’s like powering a science fair volcano with stomach acid instead of vinegar. When the digestive system meets the baking soda, the carbon dioxide it liberates has to go somewhere. For many people, the bloating, belching, nausea, and worse that can happen after consumption are decidedly not performance enhancing, says Patrick Wilson, an exercise scientist at Old Dominion University.

The Bicarb System, a product released earlier this year by the Swedish company Maurten, is designed to provide the buffering benefits while avoiding unwanted digestive complications. The company’s formulation, which costs about $16 per serving, surrounds micropills made of baking soda with a slurpable hydrogel soup. This two-component approach helps the bicarbonate move through the stomach and into the intestine before it’s absorbed, alleviating the unpleasant side effects while preserving the punch of the active ingredient. The mixture is taken a couple of hours before a competition and may even assist with longer events—for example, during the sprint at the end of a multihour cycling race.

Maurten CEO Olof Sköld tells Newscripts that the product has had two clinical trials and that data will be presented in summer 2023. The gel is already used by top athletes, and Sköld expects plenty of cyclists to consume the concoction during the upcoming Tour de France. Some preliminary data suggest the buffering effects can last for hours.

Wilson—who was sipping from a water bottle loaded with baking soda in preparation for a 5 km running race when Newscripts reached him—says, “Almost any sports supplement, it’s very difficult to tell in an individual: Is it working?” There’s plenty of research demonstrating the performance benefits of bicarbonate, but did sipping on a slightly salty slurry help his own running speed? “I have no clue,” he says.


Satiety’s ancient origins

A Cladonema pacificum jellyfish.
Credit: Hiromu Tanimoto
Full of food: A Cladonema pacificum jellyfish senses satiety with a peptide of ancient origin.

In jellyfish, the feeling of fullness doesn’t come from a buildup of gas. We now know it comes from a peptide of ancient origin that signals when the animal has had enough food.

The peptide, called GLWamide, is found in neurons from the jellyfish Cladonema pacificum. Researchers at Tohoku University compared the genes expressed after feedings and identified the peptide that signaled the status of satiety, or fullness. They described their results in a recent paper (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2023, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2221493120). Specifically, this peptide makes the muscles that move the animal’s tentacles relax, so the animal is less likely to bring prey such as brine shrimp into its mouth.

When the researchers swapped the GLWamide into Drosophila fruit flies and gave the flies’ equivalent satiety peptide to the jellyfish, they observed suppressed feeding behavior in both animals, neuroscientist Vladimiros Thoma, one of the study’s lead authors, tells Newscripts.

The peptides’ structural similarity connects the animals across hundreds of millions of years, before the ancestors of jellyfish split from the ancestors of animals with bilateral symmetry. That ancient link is the “coolest finding” from the research, Thoma says. These floating sea animals, which themselves are roughly 95% water—still show a wide range of behaviors, including sleep, mimicry, and courtship rituals.

What’s surprising about this new finding, Thoma says, is that jellyfish “can precisely regulate how much they eat. They’re not just like eating machines that constantly eat, eat, eat.”

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