Is hydrogen water real, or just another gimmick?
Familiar claims of therapeutic benefits warrant a closer look at the research
the hydrogen beer episode was an early reminder about the ease of being seduced by an appealing story and the need to always ask, “where is the evidence?”
It was 25 years ago that I almost got snookered by a story on the Internet.
According to an Associated Press report, the Asaka Beer Corporation in Japan had introduced “Suiso” beer in which some of the carbon dioxide had been replaced by hydrogen gas. Why? Because karaoke bars were popular in Japan, and spiking the lungs with hydrogen, a non-toxic gas that, like helium, is lighter than air, would allow people to sing with uncharacteristically high voices.
An interesting item for my radio show, I thought, allowing for a discussion of how sound waves travel through different mediums. I had often demonstrated how inhaling helium allows one to quack like Donald Duck because sound waves travel faster through this gas than through air and had made a point of the silliness in movies when explosions in space cause thunderous bangs. Sound cannot be transmitted through a vacuum.
Then I put my chemist hat on. Wait a minute, I thought, hydrogen has an extremely low solubility in water even under increased pressure, so it is very unlikely that enough can be released by the beer to find its way to the lungs to be exhaled.
My skepticism was further aroused when the article went on to claim an offshoot of the hydrogenated beer was the possibility of “blowing flames from one’s mouth using a cigarette as an ignition source resulting in videos with karaoke singers shooting blue flames.” Well, that would require quite a bit of hydrogen, and having blown up many a hydrogen balloon, I knew hydrogen does not burn with a blue flame. It was time for some fact checking.
The first reports I came across were not from the National Enquirer, but from the New York Times, Boston Globe and Washington Post, all of which had similar accounts of the wondrous beer from Japan. Even Chemical and Engineering News, the highly respected flagship publication of the American Chemical Society, uncritically parroted the supposed Associated Press account, even mentioning “the bottles are packed in special crates lined with concrete to prevent chain explosions in the event of fire.” Hmmm.
Then there was an article that spoke of a lawsuit launched against the Asaka Corporation by a man for selling “toxic substances that caused grievous bodily harm leading to the loss of his job.”
Apparently, he consumed 15 bottles of hydrogen beer to maximize the size of the flames he could belch during a contest. When he failed to win the contest, he “hurled fireballs at the judge, singeing her hair and entirely removing her eyebrows.”
The account went on to claim in his anger he tried for an extra strong belch and ended up inhaling a cigarette “with the subsequent internal combustion rupturing his stomach lining and causing third degree burns to his esophagus.” Too bizarre to believe.
A search of hydrogen belching videos came up blank, as did a search for Suiso beer and the Asaka Beer Corporation. They don’t exist and never have, except in the mind of a clever fraudster who managed to sucker some of the most reputable publications with “fake facts” long before U.S. President Donald Trump infused that expression into our daily language.
For me, the hydrogen beer episode was an early reminder about the ease of being seduced by an appealing story and the need to always ask, “where is the evidence?”
You can now appreciate my skepticism when recently I was confronted with a glowing article about the benefits of drinking “hydrogen water.” It has antioxidant activity, boosts energy and lowers inflammation! Oh no, I thought, here we go again.
This time, though, the product really does exist and is popular in Japan. Although hydrogen is an antioxidant, one is tempted to dismiss hydrogenated water as possibly having any physiological effect because of hydrogen’s extremely low water solubility. One would think that even if water is saturated with hydrogen, by the time the hydrogen makes it into the gut and is absorbed into the bloodstream, the concentration there will be irrelevant.
It turns out, surprisingly, that
at least in animal models an increase can be measured. In an interesting experiment, heart transplants in rats had a better success rate when the animals were given hydrogenated water to drink. In one human trial of 20 subjects, drinking 1.5-2 litres of hydrogenated water a day for eight weeks improved oxidative stress markers and reduced cholesterol levels. But there was no control group. There are also human studies showing better muscle recovery and more energy after drinking hydrogenated water, but the studies are small and haven’t been reproduced.
While I’m certainly not ready to climb aboard any high-flying hydrogen bandwagon, I must admit my surprise at finding a significant amount of published research on the potential therapeutic uses of hydrogen, albeit mostly as an inhaled gas, not dissolved in water. Stay tuned.