The Right Chemistry: Don’t throw the baby out with the hydrogenated bathwater

The litany of supposed benefits of hydrogenated water triggers skepticism, but not dismissal without investigation.

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“Congratulations! You have in your hands one of the best available tools to increase your health and vitality.”

So stated the pamphlet that accompanied Dr. Hidemitsu Hayashi’s Hydrogen Rich Water Stick, which I held in my palm. Several people had asked me if the claims made on behalf of this item were legitimate, so I ordered one to see what this purported miracle was all about.

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It wasn’t hard to determine what I was actually holding, because the box it came in informed me that the stick was composed of 99.9 per cent pure magnesium in an ultra-fine porous polyethylene resin. The reference to “hydrogen rich water” was now clear. It was all about what happens when magnesium reacts with water.

Magnesium is the third most widely used metal in the world, after iron and aluminum. It doesn’t occur in nature as the pure metal, but has to be produced either from magnesium chloride isolated from seawater or from dolomite, a rock composed of calcium magnesium carbonate, named after 18th-century French mineralogist Déodat Gratet de Dolomieu, who was the first to describe the mineral dolomite. The Dolomite mountain range in northern Italy derives its name from the large amount of dolomite found there.

As any student of chemistry knows, magnesium reacts readily with water to produce hydrogen and magnesium hydroxide. Some of the hydrogen will dissolve in the water, which can then be described as “hydrogenated.” Since the solubility of hydrogen is very low, the maximum concentration that can be achieved is about 1.5 parts per million (ppm) which is 1.5 milligrams per litre. It is from drinking the water in which the magnesium stick has been immersed that the so-called benefits of “increased health and vitality” are to be obtained.

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Who is Hayashi and how much weight should be put on his claims that drinking hydrogenated water provides “superior hydration, antioxidant power and extra energy?” His statement that “hydrogen is nature’s best antioxidant and the only fuel the body recognizes” certainly raises an eyebrow.

Hydrogen may be an excellent fuel for rockets and cars, but as far as the body goes, our major source of energy is glucose. One would think that Hayashi would know that since, as it turns out, he was a cardiac surgeon before he pivoted to marketing hydrogenated water. I don’t know what it is about cardiac surgeons. Both Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Steven Gundry were respected cardiac surgeons before they became salesmen for questionable products.

The hype for hydrogenated water is plentiful, as just a few minutes of internet surfing reveals. It purports to boost immunity, improve brain function, enhance athletic performance, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, promote dental health, alleviate allergies, reduce depression, improve skin structure and, needless to say, cure every disease you have ever heard of. Such a litany of supposed benefits triggers immediate skepticism, but not dismissal without investigation. That means surveying the scientific literature on the subject.

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I must admit that I was surprised by the number of publications on the topic in proper peer-reviewed scientific journals. Literally hundreds of papers since the first decade of this century, when researchers mostly in Japan and China began to focus on the antioxidant effects of molecular hydrogen.

“Oxidative stress” was already a hot discussion at the time, with the understanding that the oxygen we inhale also produces some “friendly fire” when it takes part in the metabolic reactions that are critical to life. This “fire” is in the form of free radicals, highly reactive species that are deficient in electrons and look to steal them from molecules in their surroundings, namely the proteins, fats, carbohydrates and nucleic acids that make up our cells. Since electrons are the glue that hold molecules together, damage to these essential cellular components has been linked to disease.

Our body doesn’t just stand by and let free radicals run amok. It produces a number of antioxidants, such as glutathione and superoxide dismutase, and enlists the help of numerous antioxidants in the diet that range from polyphenols and Vitamin C to carotenoids and selenium. This is why antioxidant supplements have become such hot items. However, these supplements are like carpet bombers, neutralizing all free radicals — which may be why they have not delivered on their promise.

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Biochemistry is a complicated business and not all free radicals are threats to health. Some have a physiological role as signaling molecules that mobilize the immune system to attack such invaders as microbes and toxins. Could there be some antioxidant that selectively attacks free radicals, such as the hydroxyl radical, that are believed to have only damaging effects?

Molecular hydrogen is just such an antioxidant. At least that is the rationale claimed by its proponents. There is no question that molecular hydrogen, which is composed of two hydrogen atoms, can break apart, with each atom combining with two hydroxyl radicals to produce two molecules of water. There is no real proof of this mechanism, but it is the one proposed to explain the benefits of hydrogenated water. Those benefits seem to have some substance, although they are based on laboratory experiments, animal studies and a few small clinical trials in humans. None of these are particularly compelling, but neither can they be dismissed.

Some examples include a study of patients undergoing radiation therapy for cancer who claimed relief from such side-effects as nausea, fatigue and diarrhea by drinking hydrogenated water. Those side-effects are supposedly due to the hydroxyl radicals produced by radiation. Another study demonstrated a reduced rejection of a transplanted heart when hydrogen water was consumed. But that was in rats. In a small study of highly conditioned athletes, there was a slight improvement in performance with hydrogenated water. Another study of 20 people with elevated blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and high cholesterol, a cluster known as “metabolic syndrome,” resulted in a reduction in cholesterol and inflammatory markers.

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All interesting stuff, but I’m not quite ready to jump on the bandwagon. I have some persistent concerns. It is hard to imagine that the tiny amounts of hydrogen that could enter the bloodstream from water in which it hardly dissolves in the first place, could have effects of practical significance. Would not much of the hydrogen be exhaled from the lungs? Then there is the issue of hydrogen gas production by bacteria in our gut when they metabolize fibre. This is a well-known process, and while some of the gas exits in an undignified fashion, some will enter the bloodstream in amounts that I would guess exceed that available from hydrogenated water.

What I can confirm is that Hayashi’s stick does indeed produce hydrogen. Given hydrogen’s volatility, I have no idea how much of it remains dissolved in the water. Still, in view of the large number of publications, albeit mostly of weak quality, I’m not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’ve even come across studies that claim that baby should be bathed in hydrogenated water. That would require a good number of Dr. Hayashi’s water sticks.

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Joe Schwarcz ([email protected]) is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.

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