The latest wellness water to hit the market *might* have performance benefits, but experts say the evidence isn't quite there yet.
If you consider yourself an athlete, you probably think a fair amount about hydration, and if you're up on the newest fitness and nutrition trends, there's a good chance you've heard about hydrogen water—a product that has the health and wellness community abuzz. Like lots of other emerging health trends, there are both experts who believe in it and those who say we just don't know enough yet to know if it's worth trying. (BTW, these are the hydration tips every fit girl needs.)
So what is hydrogen water exactly? Essentially, it's regular old H20 enriched with molecular hydrogen, as in element number one on the periodic table. It doesn't taste any different from the plain 'ol water you're used to drinking during workouts, but according to those who promote its use, the stuff has multiple benefits including increased energy, boosted athletic performance, and better skin. Some even say it cuts down recovery time for athletes. Nicholas Perricone, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and nutritionist with his own skin care and supplement brand is so invested in the concept that he even has his own line of hydrogen-enriched water.
Though the idea of hydrogen-boosted water might be new to us in the United States, it's actually been around for quite a while. "The notion of using molecular hydrogen for health benefits has been around for centuries," explains Lisa Anthony, M.D., assistant professor in dermatology at the Mount Sinai Skin and Laser Center in New York City. Several groundbreaking Japanese studies on the topic were published in 2007 and 2008, mostly using rats as subjects. These studies showed that molecular hydrogen may have the ability to do everything from fight specific diseases to combat harmful free radicals and inflammation, thus promoting overall health and well-being.
Another study done in rats in 2011, which was published in Medical Gas Research, showed that hydrogen-enhanced water could help with metabolic syndrome, a known precursor to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. "Since then, more research has emerged purporting possible therapeutic applications that could make us healthier, happier, and even more beautiful," Dr. Anthony says. "Various methods of hydrogen delivery have been popularized in Japan and elsewhere in Asia, including inhalational hydrogen, hydrogen baths, and hydrogen-infused water," she notes. Now, these products are being brought to the States.
This probably all sounds great, but there's a problem with the existing research: There's not very much that's been done on humans, and the studies that have been done on humans are incredibly small. "For the most part, hydrogen intake studies in humans are in their infancy," explains Craig Koniver, M.D., founder of FastVitaminIV. In fact, there haven't been any large-scale, double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trials in humans, which tend to be required before a treatment is accepted by the scientific community. Unfortunately, you can't just take something that worked in rats and assume it applies to humans, too. Bummer.
"A study in 2012 with 10 soccer players suggested hydrogen water may be a suitable hydration source for elite athletes," points out Natalie Stephens, R.D., a clinical nutritionist at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. "Still, there just aren't enough studies to make the claim that athletes should be drinking it consistently." She adds that the evidence that hydrogen water can help with fatigue and promote a more alkaline state in the body (which is thought to promote energy and better performance) is measurable, but the mechanism by which these results happen isn't known, and that's a pretty big missing piece of the puzzle.
And even though there's *some* evidence that hydrogen-rich water might help fight inflammation and promote an alkaline state, some experts are still wary. "Any type of special water will have virtually no effect on performance or health, as the body tries to maintain the blood pH at 7.35 (slightly alkaline)," says Barry Sears, Ph.D., the creator of the Zone Diet and an expert in anti-inflammatory nutrition. This is the same reason the alkaline diet has been debunked. Marie Spano, R.D., C.S.C.S., C.S.S.D., an author and sports nutritionist for several professional sports teams, agrees, noting that while "there are a few studies suggesting hydrogen rich water can decrease levels of inflammatory compounds in rats and mice, simply decreasing inflammation may not lead to specific measurable benefits." Inflammation is thought to be linked to slower recovery time for athletes, but without studies that show hydrogen water's specific effect on recovery time, this association has no real merit.
Plus, if you do want to reduce inflammation for better sports performance and overall health, there are proven ways to do it. "The two clinically validated ways to reduce inflammation are omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants or compounds such as polyphenols that activate genes that produce antioxidant enzymes," explains Sears. In other words, investing in some high-quality supplements and incorporating omega-3 and antioxidant-rich foods into your diet is a more surefire way to feel better and perform at a higher level. (Side note: Here's how to use post-workout inflammation to your advantage.)
Lastly, the cost of drinking enough hydrogen water to get any of the potential benefits isn't exactly practical for anyone on a budget. "Many of the studies have people drinking one to two liters or 33 to 66 ounces per day," notes Stephens. "The products on the market are only eight to sixteen ounces a piece and aren't cheap if you drink at the research volume." She's right. Dr. Perricone's product will cost you $12 a day if you want to drink the researched amount.
Still want to try it? While many of the experts we talked to said they don't necessarily recommend using hydrogen-rich water, they also don't think it will hurt. "I always advise my patients to use it (like any other therapy) in moderation," says Dr. Koniver. And if you want to try it out before a big race, Spano cautions that like anything else, you should test it out during training first. "I would never try it before competition if you haven't tried it in practice," she says.