It's the smallest molecule on earth and the most abundant in the universe. Hydrogen gas or H2, made up of two atoms of hydrogen, the lightest of atoms, is known as rocket fuel and is notorious for fueling the inferno that engulfed the Hindenburg blimp in 1937. It's had a comeback since then, emerging as one of the most promising clean alternative fuels on the horizon, but the healing potential of hydrogen has gone virtually unexamined for nearly the entire history of medicine—until now.
In just the past decade, there's been an explosion of research on the health effects of hydrogen; hundreds of studies suggest it may benefit everything from Alzheimer's to arthritis, cancer and even mood disorders. Most amazing of all is new evidence showing that this gas is able to heal the heart after damage such as a heart attack.
Thousands of people swear by its benefits and are willing to pay for it: a range of devices from water bottles and tablets that hydrogenate water to gas machines have flooded the Western market, but without much fanfare.
In Japan, however, a whole industry of anti-aging and beautifying hydrogen products and devices has swept the country. Hydrogen spas offer hydrogen gas on tap, hydrogen baths, foams and creams, and hydrogen water is practically a household term.
The Japanese Ministry of Health has approved hydrogen gas inhalation as an advanced medical therapy for patients after a heart attack, and if the research continues to be confirmed in clinical practice, hydrogen gas may soon be supplied in ambulances, from wall outlets in hospitals, and even for home use. It could even topple vitamin C from its antioxidant pedestal in the wellness industry.
"There are more than 1,500 studies showing the therapeutic benefits of molecular hydrogen now," says Tyler LeBaron, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Molecular Hydrogen Institute.
"It's shown therapeutic potential in 170 different human and animal disease models. Most of these studies have been published in just the past 12 years, so it's really promising."
LeBaron was a biochemistry student when he discovered hydrogen health science after the publication of a landmark study in 2007, which kickstarted the current whirlwind of research.
In this groundbreaking scientific paper, a group of Japanese researchers showed that hydrogen gas prevents brain damage in a lab rat model of stroke. Being so small, it is able to rapidly diffuse across membranes (including the blood-brain barrier), and once it reaches the injured cells, it acts like a selective antioxidant.
While hydrogen is not technically an antioxidant itself, the researchers discovered that it triggers antioxidant activity that specifically targets toxic free radicals. Meanwhile, other free radicals that have useful functions in the body are not affected by it.1
Hydrogen water boosts metabolism and quenches oxidative stress
When 20 people with metabolic syndrome drank hydrogen water for eight weeks, their markers of oxidative stress dropped by 43 percent, while markers of diabetes and heart disease risk (glucose tolerance and cholesterol) significantly improved.
Fuel for the research explosion
Since oxidative stress from the sun, exposure to pollution and even normal body processes damages cells and is involved in the aging process and most diseases, including cancer and cardiovascular disease, the Japanese paper triggered a research frenzy.
Numerous studies have since shown that hydrogen gas (either inhaled or dissolved into water to make hydrogen-rich water) dampens oxidative stress and restores the electron balance (oxidation/reduction or "redox") within cells—and this is what gives it its wide-reaching therapeutic potential.
Clinical trials have confirmed the original finding, too. In one small open-label study, for example, 20 patients with potential metabolic syndrome (a condition that often precedes type 2 diabetes) drank 1.5 to 2 liters of hydrogen-rich water per day for eight weeks and showed a 43 percent decrease in urine markers of oxidative stress, as well as improved cholesterol levels and glucose tolerance.2
As a byproduct of quelling oxidation, hydrogen gas has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects. Like oxidation, inflammation is a driver in almost every major illness, from cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disease to autoimmune diseases and even obesity.
Perhaps the most astonishing finding about this tasteless, odorless, nontoxic gas is that it has the ability to regulate gene expression. A study in rats demonstrated that after drinking hydrogen-enriched water for just four weeks, 548 genes were upregulated, and 695 genes were downregulated in the animals' livers. Upregulated genes included those coding for proteins that affect oxidation and reduction.3
"This could explain the antioxidative effects of H2, without the need to inaccurately state that H2 has a direct antioxidant chemical effect, which it doesn't," says Professor Garth Nicolson, a biochemist most known for his seminal work on cell membranes and founder of the Institute for Molecular Medicine in Huntington Beach, California.
"It will take some time to sort out the changes in gene regulation, because many of the genes encode proteins with unknown functions. But fairly soon we will have a good idea how H2 acts in vivo [in humans]." LeBaron adds: "This finding could explain why some effects of hydrogen gas last long after the exposure."
Case study: 'I reversed my symptoms'
In 2015, after years of puzzling, disabling pain and muscle weakness, Irene Phillips, an osteopath who practices in Worcester Park near London in the UK, was diagnosed with central core disease, a very rare condition related to muscular dystrophy.
She was told that she would be in a wheelchair eventually, and she had handrails installed in her house and kept rollator walkers on both floors to assist her movement. That same year, however, Phillips met a practitioner named Jan Beute from Ireland who introduced her to hydrogen water and made her a machine so she could produce her own, using a powder, at home.
"Now, my symptoms are totally reversed. I have no pain at all," says Phillips. She purchased her own hydrogen device, which can deliver gas or water, and in her practice she has also recently started to treat patients topically with the water for pain, which, she says, seems to have some effect.
The hydrogen in your belly
Depending on what you eat and which bacteria are present in your gut, the bugs in your intestine, such as Escherichia coli, ferment fiber to produce gallons of hydrogen gas each day.
Research has shown that that this internal hydrogen gas is actually capable of fighting oxidation and inflammation and warding off disease, just as studies are reporting manufactured hydrogen gas and water can do.
Hydrogen gas-producing bacteria can suppress hepatitis inflammation in the liver, for example.1
Antibiotics can wipe out hydrogen-producing bacteria, and the absence of this internal hydrogen may explain why some people succumb to an infection and some don't.
One study found that hydrogen gas production was more than two times lower in the intestines of Parkinson's patients than in controls.2
Numerous studies are trying to determine the microbes that are missing or overrepresented in the disease,3 and one theory is that missing hydrogen-producing microbes—and therefore missing hydrogen gas—may be part of the Parkinson's disease story.4
Hydrogen for heart attack
Not surprisingly, much research has focused on hydrogen's potential in treating cardiovascular disease. Efforts to reduce the area of damaged heart tissue following a heart attack are critical to prevent the heart from changing shape and losing function, leading to heart failure.
Professor Shigeo Ohta from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and Dr Masafumi Kitakaze from the National Cerebral and Cardiovascular Center in Osaka, Japan, began experiments on rats and dogs that verified inhalation of 1-4 percent hydrogen gas limited heart attack damage and the size of the dead cardiac tissue that resulted.4
Armed with the evidence of improved outcomes in animals and hydrogen's safety record, the researchers began human trials, and gave a 1.3 percent hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen mixture to hospitalized patients who were experiencing a heart attack.
At first, to the researchers' disappointment, they found the area of damaged heart tissue immediately following a heart attack was not reduced. But magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) one week and six months later revealed that the gas significantly reduced the longer-term damage from the heart attack.5
Recent studies have also shown that hydrogen gas is better than the standard hypothermia treatment alone in preventing neurological damage following heart attacks in rat and pig animal models.6 Now, a Japanese multicenter clinical trial of hydrogen gas in patients who had heart attacks out-of-hospital is ongoing to see if it has the same benefits in humans.7
Hydrogen for stroke
Similar to its effects after a heart attack, Japanese researchers reported in 2017 that hydrogen gas improved outcomes after a stroke. In a pilot study, they identified 50 patients who had experienced strokes, and treated half of them with 3 percent hydrogen gas inhalation for one hour twice a day, and the other half with standard IV treatment using the stroke drug edaravone for seven days.
The hydrogen group had significantly better results in terms of stroke damage and physical therapy evaluations.8
Hydrogen for brain disorders
Numerous other studies have reported hydrogen's benefits following experimental models of traumatic brain injury,9 bleeding in the brain10 and drug-induced brain damage.11 And the effects don't appear to be limited to these types of direct, physical brain injuries, but extend to developmental and age-related issues as well.
One recent study demonstrated that hydrogen-rich water significantly reduced autism-like behavior in mice along with reducing markers of inflammation in the blood.12 A study in human volunteers found that drinking hydrogen-rich water improved anxiety and autonomic function, while Professor Nicolson and his colleagues have found that in brain cells, molecular hydrogen increases the synthesis of glutathione, a critical antioxidant that protects cells from age-related oxidative damage.13
Little surprise then that hydrogen has sparked research interest as a treatment for neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. A 2013 pilot study of Parkinson's patients who drank hydrogen water daily for 48 weeks found that more of them had improved performance skills compared to those who drank control water, who deteriorated.14
However, a larger and longer follow-up study in Japan found no adverse effects from hydrogen water consumption, but no benefits, either.15 Nonetheless, some scientists are continuing the Parkinson's research with hydrogen water, spurred by encouraging results in animals.16
Videotape from one such study shows a rat injected with a neurotoxin to mimic Parkinson's disease. It has profound paralysis and movement disorder, while a hydrogen-treated rat that received the same drug appears to be moving normally.17 Another anecdotal video features a 72-year-old Malaysian man whose severe Parkinson's tremors appear to steady and eventually disappear following two hours of inhaling a hydrogen gas mixture.18
Similarly, a number of studies in animals have shown positive results for molecular hydrogen as a therapy for Alzheimer's,19 and this has led to a number of ongoing clinical trials, with promising early results in people with mild cognitive impairment.20
Hydrogen for cancer
One of the newest areas of hydrogen research is in cancer therapy. Way back in 1975, a study found that mice exposed to a high concentration of hydrogen gas (97.5 percent) in a hyperbaric chamber experienced marked regression of skin tumors,21 but since delivery of high-pressure, high-concentration hydrogen is not easy, that avenue was not pursued again until after the groundbreaking 2007 report that hydrogen gas could protect stroke victims.
One 2019 paper by Chinese researchers looked at the progress of 82 patients with advanced cancers (stages III and IV) and found that after four weeks of hydrogen inhalation, a number of patients reported significant improvements in fatigue, insomnia, anorexia and pain. More than 40 percent had improved physical status, with 75 percent of lung cancer patients showing improvements in their levels of biomarkers related to disease severity.22
Another 2019 report describes the case of a 72-year-old Chinese woman with gallbladder cancer, which had spread to her liver, lymph nodes, pancreas and small intestine, in spite of treatments including surgery and chemotherapy. She refused other treatments and instead began daily hydrogen inhalation therapy.
After one month of treatment, the gallbladder and liver tumors had continued to grow, but three months after she began hydrogen therapy, according to the report, the tumors gradually reduced in size, her tumor marker levels returned to normal, and the patient was able to resume normal life. She had remained stable for more than four months after that, up to the time the case report was published.23
Research has only just begun in this field of hydrogen as a cancer therapy. As a recent review paper in Frontiers Oncology concludes: "Growing evidence has shown that hydrogen gas can either alleviate the side-effects caused by conventional chemotherapeutics, or suppress the growth of cancer cells and xenograft tumor, suggesting its broad, potent application in clinical therapy."24
Promising early results for cancer patients
When researchers surveyed all the published evidence on hydrogen therapy for cancer patients, they found that an impressive 40 percent of these patients experienced an improvement in physical status. Among lung cancer patients in particular, a full 75 percent had seen a drop in disease activity based on cancer markers in the blood.
Hydrogen for diabetes
One of the most intense areas of hydrogen gas research is its impact on metabolism and metabolic disorders including prediabetes and diabetes. Other studies have shown how it may impact obesity, insulin resistance and other conditions.
At the cellular level, Nicolson and colleagues found that hydrogenized water stimulates the insulin signaling system by activating receptors on the cell membrane. One 2018 study described how mice with type 2 diabetes injected with hydrogen gas under the skin showed improved glucose tolerance, insulin sensitivity and serum triglyceride levels, along with significant reductions in markers of kidney disease associated with diabetes.25
A 2013 study also found that hydrogen improves glucose uptake by muscle tissue in an experimental mouse model of type 1 diabetes. The researchers concluded that, "H2 exerts metabolic effects similar to those of insulin and may be a novel therapeutic alternative to insulin in type 1 diabetes mellitus that can be administered orally."26
"Wild, wild west"
British osteopath Irene Phillips is one of the early pioneers of hydrogen therapy in the UK (see box, page 31), which is still only in its infancy in the West. Tyler LeBaron says it is a "wild, wild West" with respect to the host of machines and water bottles that have suddenly flooded the market.
Dozens of hydrogen water bottles are available on Amazon and elsewhere online, as are gas-generating machines that run in the thousands of dollars.
"New uses of hydrogen gas and hydrogenized water abound, other delivery systems that are now much more economical are being developed, and the research into its possible health and anti-aging uses is expanding quite rapidly," says anti-aging scientist Nicolson.
As in most frontiers, scams are not unheard of. Recently, CNBC reported that more than a dozen people were convinced to take out loans of thousands of dollars to buy an expensive hydrogen water machine by a company called Trussi, which told them they would be enrolled in a study and paid the money for the loan each month for their participation. They weren't paid, and the machines didn't work.27
The explosion of the hydrogen market means products have come down in price and the technology is improving, but there are no guidelines on what to buy or how much or how often to take hydrogen. Should it be taken as water or gas? Is a higher dose better? Is a continuous flow or a low, pulsed dose best?
These questions and many others haven't been answered yet. Dr Ohta's team found that intermittent pulses of hydrogen gas were more effective than continuous therapy for the treatment of Parkinson's, but drinking the water was best.28
The difference may lie in hydrogen's activity as a gene regulator, where it sends a signal like a beeping alarm, that is pulsed rather than constant so cells don't become habituated, as Ohta explains in an interview with LeBaron for the Molecular Hydrogen Foundation.29
Furthermore, "A lot depends on the water you put in the system," says Mark Kent, who is marketing a hydrogen gas machine for which he is seeking approval from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, a regulatory body that oversees treatments in the UK. "The purer the water you start with, the better."
In the midst of this flurry of products and claims, one thing is certain: one of the most promising cure-alls out there may just be a matter of guzzling gas.
Case study: 'I call it medicine'
Yvonne Petty, age 55, from Bright, Indiana, had been on insulin for nearly 30 years. She had hit the steering wheel full force during a car accident when she was 21 years old. "My pancreas was severed in a 90/10 split," she says.
Doctors tried to save the insulin-producing organ, but it was beyond salvage, and she also lost a kidney and her gallbladder. Unable to make sufficient amounts of her own insulin, Yvonne was labeled type 1 diabetic (similar to those with the condition of impaired insulin production, rather than those with type 2 diabetes, who suffer from overproduction of insulin resulting in insulin resistance).
At age 50, Yvonne found herself suddenly feeling overweight at just 5 foot 3 inches tall and 160 pounds. She began exercising vigorously, biking two hours a day, and adopted a strict ketogenic diet. Her weight dropped to 120 pounds, but she still felt fatigued. The 6 to 12 units of insulin she was taking daily just weren't helping her.
Four years ago, she stumbled on a YouTube video about hydrogen, read some research and decided to try over-the-counter hydrogenizing water tablets—magnesium pills that are dropped into a glass of water and fizz, dissolving H2 gas in the water.
"It worked. I felt my blood sugar drop sometimes. I knew there was something to it, but it was hit or miss," Petty recalls.
When she received some cash as a gift in July 2018, she "splurged" on a more advanced table-top hydrogen generator that infuses water with gas.
"This just blows my mind that it operates as insulin," she says. "I call it medicine because it really does work like insulin. I can see it on my glucometer in real time."
Petty says she's never tested hydrogen water on something as high in carbohydrates as a donut, but she's experimented with her machine and watched her blood glucose level soar from about 100 up to 200 after drinking a sugary coffee, and then drop to 105 after taking five cups of hydrogen water. "Normally, that's about three units of insulin for me."
Although her machine came with a gas adaptor, she's found through experimentation that drinking water is more effective and convenient. She's been able to drastically cut her insulin injections and only uses the drug when she veers far from her diet.
Water in general will help lower blood sugar spikes, and dehydration has been shown to disrupt the regulation of glucose levels in patients with type 2 diabetes,1 but as a diabetic with a long history of injecting insulin, Petty is quite certain that the effects she feels go well beyond ordinary hydration.
"I've had occasions where I've actually felt shaky with low blood sugar when I've taken too much hydrogen water," she says. "It's that potent."
There are zero reported dangers to taking hydrogen gas—if you are just ingesting hydrogen water. At less than 4 percent concentration, hydrogen gas is not flammable. What's more, it has no reported side-effects; it's been used by deep sea divers for decades, it does not bind with oxygen, hemoglobin or other biological molecules, and it does not affect blood pressure.
You can't overdose on molecular hydrogen because any excess after blood saturation is simply exhaled, and blood levels of hydrogen rapidly fall after inhalation is stopped. But here's what to look out for (problems that are largely resolved with the latest technologies):
Be wary of hydrogen water bottles and systems, which have been criticized. Some use aluminum hydroxide or other metals that are released in the process, and these should be avoided given the neurotoxicity of aluminum.
Steer clear of waters that are packaged in aluminum drink pouches, another source of metal toxicity, to try to contain the hydrogen gas from escaping. The hydrogen gas does escape from the water quickly (within an hour or so), which is why bottles for making and drinking hydrogen-rich water have become popular.
Suspect your product if your water has an odor like a swimming pool. Some water bottles have been shown to free ozone gas and chlorine—both potentially damaging gases. Some waters reportedly smell like pool water as a result and turn yellow with chlorine detector drops.
Look for "Proton Exchange Membrane Electrolysis" or "PEM" on the label, to find a water that filters and removes chlorine, ozone and any other gases but hydrogen from the water.
Tyler LeBaron, Molecular Hydrogen Institute: www.molecularhydrogeninstitute.com