Hydrogen Sulfide: How Does This Gas Affect Brain Activity

Hydrogen sulfide is a natural gas in the surroundings, and it has been found to provide positive effects to brain function. Read on to learn more.

RELATED: 11 Scientifically Proven Hacks To Boost Brain Health

In this article:

  1. What Is Hydrogen Sulfide?
  2. Studies on Blood Gases
  3. How Does Your Brain Process Memories?
  4. How Does Your Brain Work for Cognition?
  5. The Effect of Hydrogen Sulfide on Glucose Metabolism
  6. Your Cells Produce Sulfur-Containing Substances
  7. What Does Cysteine Do to the Body?
  8. Low Hydrogen Sulfide May Increase Oxidative Stress in the Body
  9. Glucose Uptake Gridlock
  10. Activating Glucose Transport
  11. Supplementing with Cysteine

How Hydrogen Sulfide Improves Your Brain Health

What Is Hydrogen Sulfide?

Before we discuss the effects of hydrogen sulfide in the body, let’s talk about what this gas is.

Hydrogen sulfide is a colorless gas with a smell similar to rotten eggs. This gas occurs naturally in various types of environments, such as swamps, sulfur springs, wastewater treatment catch basins, and gas wells.

While it may seem like an unfavorable compound, there is more to it than being just a natural, flammable gas in the environment, specifically in terms of human health.

Studies on Blood Gases

Blood cells | Hydrogen Sulfide: How Does This Gas Affect Brain Activity | hydrogen sulfide formula

Blood gases have long been the subjects of scientific study. They act as messengers to help regulate biological pathways.

Take nitric oxide (NO), for example. In 1998, the Nobel Prize was awarded to Louis Ignarro et al. for their work on NO’s importance to the brain, other organs and tissues, and the cardiovascular system.

Other gas concentrations, like carbon monoxide (CO), are more than the toxic by-product of fuel combustion in an automobile engine. Studies have shown it is also produced by our cells and may have positive biological pathway effects, similar to NO.

In fact, research indicates NO, CO, and a third gas, hydrogen sulfide (H2S) with a rotten egg smell, may have important functions in modulating brain activity related to memory and cognition.

How Does Your Brain Process Memories?

Your brain, specifically its memory function, has the ability to remember things, people, situations, events, and many others. The memories can give you a sense of self.

Your memory comprises a cluster of systems responsible for recalling, storing, and creating memories. Every time your brain processes information, these systems work together to provide your brain with a cohesive thought.

A single memory is already a complex construction in your brain. For example, think about your phone.

Your brain immediately retrieves your phone’s model, color, shape, design and style, its notification tone, and other information it may visualize about your phone. Each detail about your phone comes from a part of your brain which forms the image of your phone.

Every time you think of or remember something, your brain gathers the information from the different areas of your mind to visualize it.

How Does Your Brain Work for Cognition?

Woman working in florist shop | Hydrogen Sulfide: How Does This Gas Affect Brain Activity | how to make hydrogen sulfide

Cognition is basically how a person understands their surroundings and acts in it. It’s a group of mental skills and processes each of us has.

Every time you use your cognitive skills, your brain functions to complete the tasks from the simplest to the most complicated ones. For example, when you answer your phone, your cognitive abilities start to activate.

Your brain then processes to hear the sound of the ringtone and then commands your eyes to look for the answering button and your finger to press the button. Your brain also commands your language skills to answer the phone and your sense of hearing to listen to the person on the other end of the line.

It may seem really simple, but looking at how the brain processes it is complex.

Neuronal networks support your cognitive abilities. For example, your memory skill relies on the parts of your frontal and temporal lobes.

What are frontal and temporal lobes? The frontal lobe contributes to your language, emotional, motor control, and reasoning skills. The temporal lobe deals with emotion, memory, hearing, and some language aspects.

With hydrogen sulfide, your memory function and cognitive skills can improve significantly. The gas can aid in regulating biological pathways, which are key to revitalizing your brain’s capacity to keep the body healthy.

The Effect of Hydrogen Sulfide on Glucose Metabolism

Recent studies involving hydrogen sulfide, with a rotten egg odor, have also produced exciting results connecting H2S and the metabolism of glucose, the primary source of energy for the brain. It seems, along with a potential role in improving memory formation and retention (See Juvenon Health Journal Volume 10, Number 6, “The Aging Brain: Why We Forget And What Might Help.”), H2S and its precursors, cysteine (LC) and N-acetylcysteine (NAC), may help prevent metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.

What makes scientists think so? Read on.

Your Cells Produce Sulfur-Containing Substances

Team of Professional Scientists Work in the Brain Research Laboratory | Hydrogen Sulfide: How Does This Gas Affect Brain Activity | hydrogen sulfide testing

Researchers have recently demonstrated the presence of significant amounts of sulfur-containing hydrogen sulfide (H2S) in our tissues (10-160 μM in blood and brain). Where does this potentially beneficial substance come from?

Most of the H2S chemical generated in our cells is from other sulfur-containing substances our body makes, such as the amino acid, cysteine. The cells of our tissues, including those of vital organs, like the liver, brain, heart, and blood vessels, are capable of converting cysteine into H2S.

RELATED: How Often Should You Exercise And How Does It Benefit Your Brain?

What Does Cysteine Do to the Body?

Your body used cysteine to create taurine and glutathione, which are both essential to the body’s functions of building protein and flushing toxins out. This amino acid plays an important role in many bodily functions such as the following:

  • Formation and detoxification of the skin
  • Recovery of nail and hair tissue
  • Protection of your liver and brain from drugs, alcohol, and cigarette smoking damage and of your body from radiation damage and harmful toxins
  • Manufacturing of antioxidants

Low Hydrogen Sulfide May Increase Oxidative Stress in the Body

Low levels of this metabolite and cysteine were reported in blood samples drawn from individuals that have blood sugar concerns in a clinical trial. This decrease correlated with an increase in markers of oxidative stress (inflammatory substances).

Surprisingly, a subsequent study showed supplementing with cysteine produced a decrease in markers of oxidative stress in these individuals.

As a follow-up, researchers initiated another study to better understand these observed health benefits, specifically with respect to glucose metabolism. They hoped to determine the mechanism of action of cysteine and its putative metabolite, H2S.

Glucose Uptake Gridlock

The investigators set out to confirm whether low levels of cysteine and H2S were related to normal glucose metabolism. The experimental model they chose was the fat cell, the adipocyte, in vitro.

Fat tissue and these constituent cells play a key role in the body for the uptake of blood glucose and the storage of its metabolites (lipids). In individuals with blood sugar concerns, the insulin-directed metabolic pathways of glucose metabolism don’t function as well as they should.

To test the capacity of cysteine or H2S to improve glucose metabolism, the cells were first put under stress by adding excess glucose to the culture.

Cells normally respond to high glucose levels by producing metabolic markers common to diabetes, which interferes with glucose transport through the cell membrane. As expected, the machinery for glucose uptake in the experimental adipocytes was suboptimal.

Specifically, the glucose transporter molecule, GLUT4, responsible for carrying glucose from the blood (in this case, the cell culture medium) into the cell was inactive.

Activating Glucose Transport

Scientist with dropper working at the laboratory | Hydrogen Sulfide: How Does This Gas Affect Brain Activity | hydrogen sulfide test kit

The investigators repeated the experiment, adding either H2S or cysteine to the glucose-saturated growing cells. Remarkably, both sulfur compounds had the effect of activating the numerous regulators of glucose metabolism, culminating in triggering GLUT4 and the subsequent transport of glucose across the membrane into the cell.

The researchers speculate the reason for this positive outcome may be due to the antioxidant properties of both H2S and cysteine. (Studies have also demonstrated that the other precursor of H2S, N-acetylcysteine (NAC), promotes the synthesis of a key cellular antioxidant, glutathione. It, too, can help neutralize the oxidants produced by cells exposed to high glucose.)

It appears, however, that the major effect of cysteine is actually due to the hydrogen sulfide gas (H2S) produced from it by specific enzymes. Exactly how this gas activates the insulin-directed pathway and improves insulin sensitivity is currently under investigation.

Supplementing with Cysteine

The study (mentioned earlier) that identified lower levels of H2S and cysteine in people with blood sugar concerns is revealing. It also seems to support the conclusion that adequate H2S/cysteine plays an important role in improving glucose metabolism and human health.

Is supplementing with cysteine the answer? The experiments on cells in culture suggest it could be.

Human research, in vivo, is ongoing and early studies have been encouraging. Treating people with supplemental cysteine lowered markers of oxidative stress and improved insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism.

Some hydrogen sulfide foods, such as whey protein and garlic, contain high levels of cysteine. Red blood cells, according to recent experiments, have the capacity to convert the sulfur compounds contained in garlic to hydrogen sulfide.

Don’t like the taste of garlic (or the disagreeable odor associated with eating it)? Supplements containing cysteine, such as N-acetylcysteine (NAC), are another option to help maintain beneficial levels of the amino acid and the H2S it generates.

NAC is also rapidly metabolized to glutathione. Glutathione, as mentioned earlier, acts as a powerful antioxidant in the body. It protects and energizes the brain (supporting memory and cognition) as well as other tissue.

The gas hydrogen sulfide may promise potential for improving brain activity and metabolism of blood sugar based on the studies mentioned above. Your body is capable of producing this gas through the conversion of the amino acid cysteine.

So, to experience the maximum hydrogen sulfide health benefits, take cysteine supplements or consume foods rich in it.

What are your best practices in making your brain and body healthy? Share them in the comments section below!

Up Next:

Ask Ben Dr. Treadwell
answers your questions.

question:  I was wondering whether there are any nutritional supplements one could take to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system, especially with regard to healthy blood pressure? — A

answer: Research suggests Coenzyme Q10 and N-acetylcysteine (NAC) may support cardiovascular health and, consequently, healthier blood pressure. Based on recent studies, the compound pterostilbene may also promote healthier cholesterol levels, help regulate blood pressure and combat atherosclerosis.

Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) acts as an antioxidant, protecting the heart muscle and supporting the high-energy requirements of heart-cell mitochondria. Although the body produces CoQ10, levels decline as we age. According to studies, supplementing with CoQ10 is effective for boosting CoQ10 levels.

N-acetylcysteine (NAC) is an amino acid that helps promote normal homocysteine levels in the blood. Maintaining normal levels of homocysteine is also important for maintaining heart health. NAC may also help support immune response, as well as help produce Glutathione (GSH), one of the most important antioxidants in the body.

Wild blueberries are a good source of pterostilbene. In addition to positive effects on cholesterol, blood pressure and arterial health, this polyphenol-rich fruit also has antioxidant and general anti-inflammatory properties.

Along with these nutrients, I’d recommend incorporating a program of regular exercise, as well as a healthy diet, low in processed sugars. Of course, it is always a good idea to consult with your health professional to be on the safe side.

Dr. Benjamin V. Treadwell is a former Harvard Medical School.

Investigators from the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center undertook a study to examine the potential relationship between blood levels of L-cysteine and its metabolite, hydrogen sulfide, and its effects on glucose metabolism. They published their results and conclusions in a recent issue of The Journal of Biological Chemistry.The title of their report is a paragraph in itself: “Hydrogen Sulfide and L-Cysteine increase Phosphatidylinositol 3,4,5-Trisphosphate (PIP3) and Glucose Utilization by Inhibiting Phosphatase and Tensin Homolog (PTEN) Protein and Activating Phosphoinositide 3-Kinase (PI3K)/Serine/Threonine Protein Kinase (AKT)/Protein Kinase Cζ/λ (PKCζ/λ) in 3T3l1 Adipocytes.”The team was aware that previous research had reported that individuals with blood sugar concerns tend to have low blood levels of the amino acid, L-cysteine (LC) and the hydrogen sulfide (H2S) gas produced from it. They hypothesized that reduced levels of these two sulfur-containing compounds actually caused sub-optimal glucose metabolism common to this diabetic condition.To test this new hypothesis, the authors chose fat cells, adipocytes, as their model. These cells are the body’s primary form of energy storage, providing a buffer against imbalances. Adipose tissue (composed of adipocytes) is also crucial in regulating how your body utilizes glucose. Certain individuals have trouble taking up glucose from the blood and metabolizing it in the body.

Briefly, there were two parts to the in vitro experiment. First, researchers established a baseline by incubating adipocytes in the presence of high glucose and examining the effect on the insulin-regulated glucose metabolic pathways. As expected, the high glucose-exposed cells produced elevated levels of oxidants and inflammatory components. Consequently, the capacity to transport glucose into the fat cells for metabolism was dramatically impacted.

The second part of the experiment involved repeating the incubation, but this time adding either H2S or its precursor, LC. The results? A decrease in markers of oxidative stress and inflammation, and an increase in the presence of the biological molecules necessary for transport of glucose across the cell membrane. In other words, this study provides evidence by which supplementing H2S or LC can up-regulate the insulin-signaling pathways.

The authors believe their work suggests the positive effect on glucose transport and metabolism is most likely due to the capacity of H2S to function as an antioxidant, neutralizing the stress of high-glucose exposure. They also mention the possibility that H2S /cysteine stimulates the production of the powerful endogenous antioxidant, glutathione. They note there may be similar benefits from consuming foods high in cysteine content, such as whey protein and garlic.

This Research Update column highlights articles related to recent scientific inquiry into the process of human aging. It is not intended to promote any specific ingredient, regimen, or use and should not be construed as evidence of the safety, effectiveness, or intended uses of the Juvenon product. The Juvenon label should be consulted for intended uses and appropriate directions for use of the product.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on December 11, 2011, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.