As with most applications for molecular hydrogen, we have to start with a discussion of free radicals, particularly Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS for short).
ROS are created in many ways- due to a variety of external environmental exposures, as well as a consequence of our own metabolism. If we look at the world around us, it makes sense that when you burn fuel for energy, you create unwanted waste products.
Just as exhaust is produced when our cars burn gasoline, think of ROS are the unwanted byproduct of the process by which our bodies metabolize macronutrients for fuel.
It’s not as black and white as with car exhaust, as ROS can sometimes serve important and beneficial purposes (more on this to come), but the analogy is close enough to provide some context.
Antioxidants are molecules that counteract and neutralize these free radicals. Our body is constantly producing natural antioxidants to maintain a balance with the ROS produced by ongoing energy metabolism.
Molecular hydrogen is a powerful antioxidant. What makes molecular hydrogen so great is that it:
Is an antioxidant that selectively targets the WORST free radical, the hydroxyl radical. This is particularly important because our bodies don’t actually have any natural countermeasure to this harmful molecule.
Remember how we said metabolism isn’t black and white? Some ROS serve important roles as cell signalling molecules. Because it’s selective, molecular hydrogen leaves these beneficial ROS alone.
Molecular hydrogen works in part by ramping up our own production of natural antioxidants. It works at the genetic level to up-regulate transcription of powerful antioxidants, like superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase, through activation of the NRF2 pathway.
Exercise and Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS)
Ok. So what does all this have to do with athletes?
Well, if ROS are a byproduct of normal metabolism, what happens when you kick things into high gear?
During exercise, we need to burn a lot more fuel, which results in...drum roll...a lot more ROS produced as a byproduct.
This is part of the process by which our body self-regulates. The presence of these metabolites is part of what triggers our brain to make us feel fatigued and want to stop.
The formula for fitness is roughly as follows:
Fitness = Training x Time + Recovery
So if we could increase any of these variables...
How hard you can work while training
Length of time for which you are able to train
Amount of recovery in a given timeframe
...we could see a big increase in fitness.
Since part of what limits our effort and intensity during exercise is the production of ROS, in theory, a powerful antioxidant could let you train harder for longer, which will result in improved fitness.
Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on theory. A number of studies have explored the effects of molecular hydrogen and athletes. So what did they find?
The reason for this is because most antioxidants (like Vitamin C) are not selective. They indiscriminately target all ROS.
The key to this decrease in performance is a concept called hormesis. Hormesis is the foundational principle of pretty much any kind of training. In a nutshell, it’s the idea that if we stress a system and then give it time to recover, it will rebuild stronger than it was before.
Turns out, one of the triggers of the hormetic response to exercise is the presence of free radicals. So an indiscriminate antioxidant that wipes out ALL of the free radicals will prevent some of the hormetic response to training. Remember, we said that sometime ROS play a beneficial role as cell signalling molecules.
If only there were a selective antioxidant with sniper-like targeting that only went after the “bad” free radicals, and left the ones that we need for cell signalling alone…
Molecular hydrogen is uniquely selective, and only targets ROS that would otherwise be harmful, without interfering with beneficial ROS that serve important cellular functions. This makes it the ideal antioxidant supplement for athletes.
But it gets even better…
NRF2...A Master Regulatory Pathway
One of the important ways that molecular hydrogen seems to work is by activating one of our body’s master antioxidant and anti-inflammatory regulatory pathways, the NRF2 pathway. Basically it turns on genes that up-regulate the production of endogenous antioxidants and anti-inflammatory cell mediators.