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The world of medical research and the human body is a dynamic one full of exciting discoveries. There is much we don’t know, so when a new discovery is made, it’s a big deal. Enter the gaseous molecule nitric oxide (NO). Once thought to be a chemically unstable gas that existed only in the environment, in the late 1980’s researchers discovered that NO was produced by the human body and acted as a ubiquitous signaling molecule that had an immense effect on human health. It was such an important discovery that the researchers won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work.
What was once known only as an air pollutant became a prize-winning molecule for its significant role in health. Do you know NO and how it influences your health?
NO was the first gas ever discovered to act as a signaling molecule—a molecule that communicates with cells, giving them directions on how to behave—in humans it is found throughout the body, from the endothelial lining of our blood vessels to the brain to immune cells. It is a potent vasodilator (i.e., it relaxes the arteries) that reduces blood pressure and improves circulation, increasing blood flow and oxygen delivery to every part of the body. It also regulates mitochondrial function and stimulates mitochondrial biogenesis, or the creation of new mitochondria. Mitochondria are necessary for energy production in our cells and play a huge role in overall health. As one Harvard researcher put it, “…just about every cellular process is linked to mitochondria.”
NO has been found to positively influence cardiovascular health, exercise performance, cognitive function, and sexual performance. It is critical for proper immune function, it supports healthy insulin production and function, and is involved in bone health. It truly is a major player in whole-body health.
In addition to improving vasodilation, NO also prevents platelet aggregation and adhesion (blood clots) and protects the arteries from age-related changes such as stiffness, endothelial dysfunction, oxidative stress, and inflammation. One study with hypertensive subjects found that just a little over a cup of beetroot juice—a concentrated source of dietary nitrate, which the body easily converts to NO—each day improved blood pressure and endothelial function, and reduced arterial stiffness over the course of four weeks.
Erectile dysfunction, or ED, is now recognized as an early indicator of cardiovascular disease, and indeed, men with ischemic heart disease have a high prevalence of ED. When the arteries that supply the penis with blood to achieve and maintain an erection are blocked or hardened, or the lining of these arteries are damaged, blood flow is reduced. Just as NO is essential for maintaining healthy vasodilation and blood flow, NO is also believed to be essential for a normal erection and impaired NO activity is directly related to ED.
IN ADDITION TO BEETROOT JUICE OR POWDER, OTHER SUPPLEMENTS THAT EFFECTIVELY INCREASE NO LEVELS INCLUDE GRAPESEED EXTRACT, PYCNOGENOL, L-CITRULLINE, CHLORELLA, AND SPIRULINA.
In addition to keeping the blood vessels to the brain functioning optimally, NO helps to maintain nerve cells, regulate normal brain functions, and increase blood flow to the brain. In one study, older adults with an average age of 74 were put on a high-nitrate diet that included two cups of beetroot juice at breakfast and a spinach and beetroot salad at dinner. In just two days, those on the high-nitrate diet experienced an increase in blood flow to the frontal lobe, the part of the brain involved in memory, attention, and regulating emotions, and an area at risk for reduced blood supply in the elderly. Other recent research found that when hypertensive senior adults took a shot of beetroot juice (containing 560 mg of nitrate) just before walking, they experienced brain activity that closely resembled that of younger adults, specifically in the somatomotor cortex, the area responsible for processing information from the muscles.
Across age ranges, in trained and untrained athletes, males and females, and a variety of different activities, dietary nitrate—typically in the form of beetroot juice—helps muscles work more efficiently and use less oxygen, and increases tolerance to exercise, all of which improve overall performance and increases the time to exhaustion.
NO plays many roles in the digestive tract where it increases the mucosal lining, which helps to protect the GI tract from pathogens, as well as keep intestinal cells healthy. It is also crucial to gut motility and may even protect against increased permeability (leaky gut) and oxidative damage.
Most studies investigating the health effects of NO utilize beetroot juice or beetroot powder in water to maximize NO levels in the subjects. These provide a concentrated dose of dietary nitrate, which the body easily converts to NO, but because NO has a short half-life (it’s reduced in the body pretty quickly), it’s important to strive to maintain consistent levels. You can do this by regularly eating highnitrate foods, such as beets and spinach, and by utilizing specific supplements, like beetroot juice or powder, to consistently enhance NO levels (test strips are readily available and help
gauge your levels). For all of the many health benefits this molecule offers, are you ready to say yes to NO?
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