The laughing gas, right?
No, that is Nitrous Oxide and it is used as a sedative. Nitric Oxide is a gas that we produce naturally in our bodies. Nitric oxide has numerous health implications based on its role as a potent vasodilator.
Prior to the 1980s Nitric Oxide was considered to be a by-product of the combustion of fossil fuels. It wasn’t until Robert Furchgott, Ferid Murad and Louis Ignarro were independently working on vascular functioning that the puzzle of Nitric Oxide took shape. Furchott was looking at endothelial cells and smooth muscle. Murad was investigating nitroglycerin and its release of nitric oxide. Ignarro found endothelium-derived relaxing factor (EDRF) and how a gas regulated biological functions. In 1998 these three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of nitric oxide as a signaling molecule in the cardiovascular system. (1)
Today most of us have heard of nitric oxide as something body builders take to get pumped, however nitric oxide isn’t limited to just that spectrum of the ultra serious lifters. In fact it is vital to the health of everyone reading this.
This tiny gas molecule is essential for overall health, considering it is produced by nearly every type of cell in the human body. The most notable of these biological processes is its ability to dilate your blood vessels allowing for blood, nutrients, and oxygen to travel to every region of your body efficiently and effectively (2)
Everyone makes it? So I am good?
Not necessarily. As we age there seems to be a decrease in nitric oxide production. (3) Now this could be due to other disease factors that creep up when we age. Decrease in muscle tissue, high blood pressure, diabetes etc. So it is hard to say that nitric oxide decreases with age in everyone. What we can say is everyone needs it, and there should an attempt to ingest some exogenous nitric oxide precursors on a regular basis. This will help to ensure your levels are up and reap the health benefits along with it.
Precursors? So walk around with a gas tank taking hits?
Doesn’t quite work like that. Nitric oxide has a very short half-life in our bodies (less than 10 seconds) (4) so we need to ingest precursors that will get converted into nitric oxide. This conversion from external sources combined with our own natural production will help keep normal levels.
Ok, so where do I get it?
Vegetables are high in Nitrates (4)
When these foods are consumed the nitrates get converted to nitric oxide. Some of these have been shown to lower blood pressure (5)
Another way to maintain levels is to try and neutralize free radicals to cut down on that short half-life. You can do so by increasing your antioxidant intake of
Vitamins C and E along with polyphenols and glutathione (6). Intake of these antioxidants along with nitric oxide precursors has been shown to maintain higher levels of nitric oxide (7)
Nitric Oxide boosting supplements
There are so many out there, and they all are full of L-arginine and L-citrulline in a combination or one or the other.
L-Arginine increases nitric oxide through the L-arginine-NO pathway. It has some mixed results on its effectiveness across populations, those with higher blood pressure it seems to help bring down blood pressure (8) but in exercise performance the results uncertain (9)
L-Citrulline actually increases your bodies production of L-arginine more than supplementing with just L-arginine. L-citrulline is a byproduct of the conversion of L-arginine to nitric oxide and then circles back to L-arginine (10)
L-citrulline has been shown to increase blood flow and improve exercise performance (11, 12)
Go figure, focus on fruits and vegetables
Yup! Maintaining nitric oxide levels can be as simple as eating a well balanced diet of fruits (antioxidants) and vegetables (nitrates). Then possibly supplementing with L-arginine and L-citrulline, or even a nitrate rich supplement, if you feel you are lacking in one department almost as an insurance policy. You should also be exercising regularly, that keeps your blood vessels working the way you want them too. All the nitric oxide in the world won’t help with blood vessels that are as stiff as a lead pipe. (13)
Eat some fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly and visit your doctor. Sound familiar? The role of nitric oxide and your health is just another reason to follow that exact prescription.