Hydrogen water is water that’s been infused with extra hydrogen gas to increase the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory potential, drawing on years of research by medical professionals who have been exploring the benefits of inhaled hydrogen for cardiac patients, people going into and coming out of surgery, and other medical applications. Hydrogen gas can nullify many of the reactive oxygen species responsible for oxidative stress, and pre- and peri-operative hydrogen inhalation does appear to help patients recover more quickly and avoid many of the side effects inherent to surgery. But that’s inhaled hydrogen gas in a medical setting. Does commercial hydrogen water have similar benefits?
I was actually surprised to find that the research is fairly compelling. Let’s dig in.
Hydrogen water improves physical performance
Both acute and long-term hydrogen water intake can improve your performance in the gym, on the bike, or on the field.
One study had cyclists either drink hydrogen water or placebo water prior to cycling. Those who drank hydrogen water had more endurance and reported less fatigue during training.
Hydrogen water has also been shown to reduce lactate, an objective measure of fatigue, when consumed 30 minutes before a workout. Lactate builds up with exhaustive exercise—the harder and longer you go, the more lactate you produce and the more tired you get. The researchers hypothesized that hydrogen water reduces lactate by increasing mitochondrial respiration and ATP production.
However, another study found that a 7-day course of hydrogen water only improved exercise performance in trained athletes. Non-athletes saw no benefit. To really see the benefits of hydrogen water for physical performance, you probably need to be doing serious training.
If you are doing serious training or competing and need to maintain performance despite fatigue, hydrogen water can help. One recent study found that drinking hydrogen water rescued the antioxidant capacity of athletes engaged in three unbroken days of intense physical training. Moreover, they experienced no performance decline.
Hydrogen water improves metabolic health
Metabolic syndrome is the most common illness in the country. Your average diabetic, hypertensive adult with low HDL levels and high triglycerides who’s due for a heart attack any moment? He’s got metabolic syndrome.
In patients with probable metabolic syndrome, hydrogen water consumption raises HDL and lowers LDL oxidation. Since oxidized LDL are a causative risk factor for heart attacks, and high HDL is protective, everyone would agree that this is a positive development.
Another study of probable metabolic syndrome patients found that hydrogen water reduced inflammatory markers while improving blood lipids and antioxidant capacity. Higher antioxidant capacity combined with reduced inflammatory markers suggest an increased resistance to oxidative stress.
Hydrogen water lowers elevated oxidative stress
However, hydrogen water only lowers oxidative stress if there’s oxidative stress hanging around that needs lowering. Again and again, we see little no effect on healthy people who aren’t suffering from oxidative stress.
One study gave hydrogen water to people aged between 20 and 59 years of age. Only those aged 30 years or more saw an increase in their antioxidant capacity. The younger people with a presumably lower oxidative stress load didn’t really benefit, while the older people who’d had more time to pick up some stress along the way saw benefits.
Another study found that heathy people who drank hydrogen water for four weeks straight saw no effect (good or bad) on their oxidative stress levels compared to placebo.
Meanwhile, patients with chronic hepatitis B infections see large decreases in oxidative stress upon hydrogen water intake.
Even the exercise research I discussed earlier bears this out. When you train hard, you’re creating a transient state of oxidative stress. You’re “unhealthy” for a moment in time, and that’s where hydrogen water has an effect.
Hydrogen water improves aging
All else being equal, the older you are, the more oxidative stress you’re exposed to. Older people also tend to be more inflamed and have lower antioxidant capacities. Hydrogen water can help with all three.
In adults older than 70, hydrogen water has been shown to increase brain nutrient content, lengthen telomeres, and improve how quickly a person can stand up from a chair—all extremely important as we age.
In both mouse models and human studies, hydrogen water improves symptoms of mild cognitive impairment.
How does it work?
The evidence is there, but how is hydrogen exerting its antioxidant effects? There are two main theories and they both have supporting evidence.
Theory 1: Hydrogen water is a direct antioxidant that selectively scavenges and nullifies harmful reactive oxygen species. For instance in one study, butter was washed either with normal water, hydrogen-infused water, or magnesium water. Washing with both the magnesium and hydrogen water prevented the formation of amines (metabolites of amino acid breakdown) in the butter during long term storage by scavenging the oxidant species responsible. Regular water allowed amine formation.
Theory 2: Hydrogen water is a hormetic stressor. Hormesis describes exposing an organism to a mild stressor that provokes an adaptive response. Examples of hormesis include exercise (damage the muscles and get stronger as a result), intermittent fasting/calorie restriction (light “starvation” improves metabolic health), cold exposure, and even dietary polyphenols that act like mild pesticides that provoke an anti-inflammatory antioxidant response in the body. Hydrogen water does trigger the very same NrF2 pathway that other hormetic stressors also trigger.
These aren’t necessarily contradictory. Both can be true to some extent. In fact, many researchers believe that the hydrogen water is both a direct scavenger and a hormetic stressor. What definitely seems to be the case is that hydrogen water exerts antioxidant effects and can stem the tide of oxidative stress.
Do you need hydrogen water?
However, if you do need it, it really seems to work. The fact that it’s selectively effective—that it has little to no effect in otherwise healthy young people who don’t really have much oxidative stress happening, instead improving the health of people experiencing high oxidative stress—is a good sign. It’s not something everyone needs to take. It’s a supplement that can help people dealing with specific disease states: metabolic syndrome, inflammatory diseases, even something like depression. It’s probably also helpful for people engaged in hard physical training.
In other words, it helps if you need it and has little to no effect if you don’t. It’s good if you’re sick or stressed and it’s benign if you’re not.
I’d say it’s worth a shot if you’re interested.