This week one our physicians spoke to a patient who swore that Borax (yes the household cleaner) helps his knee arthritis. Prior to that, one of our network physicians sent me a new controlled trial showing an ingredient in Borax (Boron) helped knee arthritis patients when given as a supplement. What gives? Can Borax help knee arthritis? Can it be used as a supplement to help stem cells?
The concept that boron may be an effective treatment for arthritis goes back to the 1960s. An English scientist named Newnham had moved to Australia where the sandy soils were poor in Boron and he developed arthritis. He then supplemented with Boron and his arthritis abated. In the early 80s, he presented a research study showing that arthritic hips had half the bone boron content of normal hips (29.6 ppm vs 56 ppm). Subsequently, another group of scientists found similar low boron concentrations in the bones and synovial fluid of patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Later research by Newnham showed that in areas of the world where the Boron consumed was less than 1 mg/day, arthritis prevalence ranged from 20-70%, whereas in areas where 3-10mg/day were consumed, arthritis rates were 0-10%. A small Australian controlled trial in the mid-80s showed that patients taking boron supplements at 55mg a day had less pain than those taking a placebo. A study from the mid-1990s showed that the portion of the femur bone next to the hip joint had lower concentrations of boron as well as lead and zinc. Another paper from that same time period postulated that boron depletion in soil due to fertilizer use was associated with the spike in arthritis incidence, although this was offered as more of a hypothesis.
While some blogs and magazine articles have advocated that a good source of boron is the popular household cleaner Borax, there is a salt complex between boron, calcium, and fructose which is sold as a nutritional supplement-calcium fructoborate (CFB). The company that manufactures the supplement claims much better boron bioavailablity. CFB has been tested in a number of clinical trials. In 2011, two weeks of CFB at 1.5-6 mg/boron per day (29-113 mg of CFB) tested at different doses in 60 arthritis patients did show interesting results. The patients who took boron had reduced inflammatory markers. A larger 2013 study looked at a combination supplement in heart patients which included resveratrol and CFB and found that the best reduction in inflammatory and blood lipid markers happened when the two supplements were combined.
The last big entry in the boron and arthritis story is more recent, having been published just a few weeks ago. This study conducted at UC Irvine was funded by the company that makes the boron supplement (calcium fructoborate). This 60 patient knee arthritis investigation demonstrated that 110 mg of CFB twice a day significantly improved functional scores over two weeks when compared to placebo. In addition, the patients with higher blood markers for chronic inflammation (CRP) who were taking CFB had more reduction in those markers than patients taking placebo.
How about stem cells? Is there any research showing that boron helps mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs)? Interestingly, a paper was just published in February showing that adding in boron to MSCs that had been frozen increased their viability and also helped their bone and cartilage forming capabilities. This is important, as freezing cells is a stress, so the boron seemed to help the MSCs better handle that stress.
The upshot? Please don’t go out and start consuming common household cleaners! Having said that, there are moderate levels of evidence that boron supplementation may help arthritis and inflammation. One small study seems to show that it helps stem cells. As a result, we’re planning to test boron supplementation on MSCs taken from arthritis patients to see if it has any positive effects before deciding to recommend this to patients or add it to our stem cell supplement.