Nitric Oxide: A Unifying Principle of Health

Nitric oxide is a unifying principle behind so many things we know are good for us, like probiotics and exercising and drinking more water and eating vegetables. What these all have in common is: They increase the amount of nitric oxide in your body.

And nitric oxide has a lot of different, significantly positive effects.

We’ve got all these different diets that have been proven to help people live longer and healthier, like the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet and vegetarianism. What they have in common is an emphasis on foods that increase the amount of nitric oxide in your blood, in your cells and in your brain.

When the research first started, not many scientists thought nitric oxide was even worth looking at. Only about 40 research papers a year were being published on the subject — most of them coming from a single lab. When that lab’s scientists won the Nobel Prize for their work on nitric oxide, it electrified the scientific community. Five years later, more than 7,500 papers a year were being published about nitric oxide.

The number of things scientists have discovered that improve when you have more nitric oxide in your body is really impressive. People sleep better, they have more energy, they’re in better moods, they have less heart disease, less cancer, and have a better long-term memory. Nitric oxide plays an important role in your immune system — it kills bacteria and viruses and promotes the healing of wounds and injuries. It also helps people lose weight by stimulating the burning of fat. It keeps the veins free of plaque. It can delay or even prevent atherosclerosis. It makes your blood vessels dilate, which lowers your blood pressure. It increases blood flow, increasing endurance and strength.

One of the men who won the Nobel Prize (for discovering the effect nitric oxide has inside the human body) said he believes heart disease can be essentially eliminated by doing things that keep your nitric oxide level high. That’s a big statement from someone with his credentials.

Nitric oxide also functions as a neurotransmitter, helping to process nerve signals as they cross synapses.

The first thing researchers discovered is that nitric oxide dilates blood vessels, which means it relaxes the smooth muscle cells that line arteries, veins and lymphatic channels, allowing blood, nutrients, and oxygen to flow more easily through your body. Nitric oxide also prevents blood clotting, so it reduces the chance of heart attacks and strokes. It can lower your cholesterol level. It also prevents bad cholesterol from oxidizing into even worse artery-clogging forms. It lowers the risk of diabetes.

It also triggers the pituitary gland to release human growth hormone, which stimulates your body to build and repair and heal your muscle, bone and skin.

Nitric oxide is a signaling compound. The body uses it as a communication device. The strange thing is that it's a gas. It is released by your body into your body as a gas. That’s why it was hard to discover — the molecule’s life span is only a second or two.

There are many different pathways for raising the amount of nitric oxide in your body. For example, some foods, like spinach and beets, contain a high amount of nitrite and nitrate, which your body can convert into nitric oxide. Some of that conversion occurs in your mouth by probiotic bacteria in your saliva.

When you drink enough water, it helps the enzymes that convert a particular amino acid (L-Arginine) into nitric oxide do their job more effectively. So by drinking more water, it raises your nitric oxide level.

Some foods (like pumpkin seeds) contain more of that protein, L-Arginine, than others. If you eat more of that protein, you’ll have more of the raw material your body needs to make nitric oxide. Some foods (like watermelon) contain L-citrulline, which helps make the enzyme that your body uses to convert L-Arginine into nitric oxide. Some foods like blueberries and cherries contain anthocyanins, which prevent nitric oxide from being oxidized too quickly, which allows it to have more of a positive effect on your body.

When you exercise moderately, it stimulates your body to produce more nitric oxide. If you exercise too vigorously, it produces too many free radicals, and actually lowers the amount of nitric oxide in your body.

Fasting stimulates your body to produce nitric oxide.

Just about anything known to be good for you probably increases nitric oxide in your body. Turmeric, for example, raises the amount of nitric oxide in your body. Leafy green vegetables contain a high amount of nitrite and nitrate that your body can convert into nitric oxide. Apples contain polyphenols that help your saliva convert those nitrates and nitrites into nitric oxide.

Here’s an interesting tidbit: Since there is bacteria in your saliva that convert nitrate and nitrite into nitric oxide, when you use a mouthwash, it lowers the amount of nitric oxide in your body.

Here’s another one: Caffeine increases your blood vessels’ output of nitric oxide.

Are you as intrigued about this as I am? It all sounds good, of course, but is it safe? Can you have too much nitric oxide?

Louis Ignarro, the man I mentioned above, who won the Nobel Prize (along with two of his colleagues), said: "At extraordinarily high concentrations, nitric oxide is toxic. These levels, however, cannot be reached through the body’s internal mechanisms for producing nitric oxide from either food and supplement intake or from exercise. At relatively low levels within the body — the kind that can be attained through foods, supplements, and exercise — nitric oxide can dramatically influence our health in positive ways."

I mentioned that all the diets known to reduce heart disease and cancer have nitric oxide in common, but not all the foods in those diets are high in nitric oxide. So this discovery allows us to be more precise with our diet. There are other factors in food that are good for you, of course, but a big one has been hidden because it’s a gas, and now that we know about it, we can make even better choices.

It’s worth looking into and Ignarro's book — No More Heart Disease — is a good place to start.

Listen to this article as a podcast by clicking here.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth
SlotralogyAntivirus For Your Mindand co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Subscribe to his blog here. You can email him here.

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