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 its 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, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

If I Was Happy About This, What Would I Be Thinking About It?

The following is part of a series called Direct Your Mind. Good questions can be used effectively to direct your mind so you're using your mind to work for you rather than against you. Read more here about how to use the technique.

Sometimes it’s easier to ask this version: “If someone else, more capable and wiser than me was happy about this, what would that person be thinking about it?”

Your car breaks down, it’s pouring rain, and you’re late for an important interview. Of course this is miserable. One possible and perfectly understandable reaction you could have is to throw a fit of rage. To freak out. To cry, scream, curse the gods.

But when you’re all done and you’ve made your phone calls and you’re waiting for the tow truck to arrive, you can explore your mind by imagining this same set of circumstances, but imagine that somehow you are happy about it. What would you have to be thinking to be happy about it?

Have I gone overboard here? Is this pie-in-the-sky positive thinking on steroids? How can anybody be happy in those circumstances? Why would anyone even want to be happy in those circumstances?

The why is easy: You’ll feel better and get more done. It will do you no good at all to feel miserable. What’s done is done. You are in those circumstances, no matter how you feel about them. And negative emotions are generally hard on you. Anytime you can remove unnecessary negative emotions from your life, you’ve benefited your health.

And you will respond to things better, you’ll be more creative at solving problems, and you will treat people you love with more care and respect if you feel better. The way you feel has real consequences.

So that takes care of the why. Let’s look at the how. How could a person feel happy under those circumstances? Broken-down car, rain, late for meeting. You can’t do it by forcing yourself, I can tell you that. You cannot force yourself to feel good. Why? Because forcing yourself doesn’t feel good.

But you could have a different perspective on your situation. You could look at it differently, and thereby feel differently. You could be only mildly upset about it, you could be not bothered at all about it, or you could actually feel happy — you could feel good about your circumstances. All it takes is a little creativity on your part.

Your answers to the question depend on you and your circumstances. If I was in that circumstance, for example (with the rain and late for an appointment, etc.), these are some of the things I would have to be thinking if I was happy about it: “I’m glad this happened to me and not my wife. I’m glad this happened when I was in the slow lane and could get off the road without causing an accident. It will be interesting to find out how the interviewer responds to my missing the meeting (sort of like a test of character), and it might make a good real-life illustration to use on the rescheduled interview. I’m glad this happened because since I’ve been sitting here waiting for the tow truck I’ve had time to reflect on the fact that I was running late already, and perhaps my own greed needs to be curbed — I’m trying to stuff too much into my days and I’m past the point where it is fun. I need to slow the pace and make it more fun. I’m glad this event has given me time to reflect and readjust my priorities.”

And so on. You get the idea. The more you think about it, the more there is to be happy about. It’s also true that the more you think about it, the more things you could think of to be miserable about, but the question is: Which do you choose? Because it really is your choice, and your choice will have consequences one way or the other.

Another alternative way to ask this question is: “What would I like to feel about this?” And then after you get the answer to that one, ask: “What would I have to think about it in order to feel that way?”

I once had an appointment with the dentist for the following day, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. So I asked, “What do I want to feel?” Of course, my answer was, I wanted to be glad I was going to the dentist, or at least no longer feel dread.

My next question was, “What would I have to think that would make me feel good in these circumstances?”

One of my answers was, “I would have to think I was grateful that I live in a time and place that has dentists to take care of my teeth.” I thought about other places and times (all of human history except the very recent) when people got painful cavities, lost their teeth, and suffered tremendous agony because they did not have dentists, because dentistry hadn’t even been invented, or it was only for the rich or whatever, and here I was ungratefully wishing I didn’t have to go.

And the truth is, I didn’t have to go. It was my privilege to be able to go. I felt glad about going, and no longer dreaded it.

And I changed my attitude by beginning with the simple question, “What would I like to feel?” 

Okay, you have a bad feeling, but what would you like to feel? And then go on from there and ponder the question, “What could I think about the situation that would result in that feeling?”

Also note that I changed the way I looked at it and felt better without fooling myself or trying to believe something I didn’t really believe, or trying to force myself to feel any particular way. I felt better honestly and genuinely by looking at the real situation with a broader perspective than I had been using.

It’s important not to do this questioning with a forcing attitude, or in a hurry. Just ponder it like you’re daydreaming. Just wonder about it. Imagine you’re in a hammock drinking a lemonade. Imagine it’s a lazy summer afternoon and you have absolutely nothing to do but enjoy the cool breeze. Imagine you’ve got all day to lie around and daydream. Then ask the question in a relaxed, curious way. Imagine you’re pondering the question for your own amusement and nothing more.

Questions direct your mind. And this question is a great way to generate whole new trains of thought that will lead you to better feelings (and better health): If I was happy about this, what would I be thinking about it?

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal GrowthSlotralogyAntivirus For Your Mindand co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English)Follow his podcasts, The Adam Bomb and Talk to Klassy. You can email him here.