by Jason Clark, BSc, MSc
What is nitric oxide and how does it work?
Some people think it's the gas that makes us laugh at the dentist office. Some think it's the fuel racecar drivers use to speed up their cars. But it's neither. Nitric oxide is a molecule that our body produces to help its 50 trillion cells communicate with each other by transmitting signals throughout the entire body.
Nitric oxide has been shown to be important in the following cellular activities:
• Help memory and behavior by transmitting information between nerve cells in the brain
• Assist the immune system at fighting off bacteria and defending against tumors
• Regulate blood pressure by dilating arteries
• Reduce inflammation
• Improve sleep quality
• Increase your recognition of sense (i.e. smell)
• Increase endurance and strength
• Assist in gastric motility
have been over 60,000 studies done on nitric oxide in the last 20 years
and in 1998, The Nobel Prize for Medicine was given to three scientists that
discovered the signaling role of nitric oxide.
Nitric oxide has gotten the most attention due to its cardiovascular benefits. Alfred Nobel, the founder of the Nobel Prize, was prescribed nitroglycerin over 100 years ago by his doctor to help with his heart problems. He was skeptical, knowing nitroglycerin was used in dynamite, but this chemical helped with his heart condition. Little did he know nitroglycerin acts by releasing nitric oxide which relaxes narrowed blood vessels, increasing oxygen and blood flow.
The interior surface (endothelium) of your arteries produce nitric oxide. When plaque builds up in your arteries, called atherosclerosis, you reduce your capacity to produce nitric oxide, which is why physicians prescribe nitroglycerin for heart and stroke patients.
Nitric oxide and erectile dysfunction
Viagra and other impotence medications work due to their action on the nitric oxide pathway. One cause of impotence is unhealthy and aged arteries that feed blood to the sexual organs. Viagra works by influencing enzymes in the nitric oxide pathway, causing a cascade of enzymatic reactions that enhance nitric oxide, causing more blood flow and better erections.
How to increase nitric oxide in your body
most common way to increase nitric oxide is through exercise. When you run or
lift weights, your muscles need more oxygen which is supplied by the blood. As
the heart pumps with more pressure to supply the muscles with blood, the lining
in your arteries releases nitric oxide into the blood, which relaxes
and widens the vessel wall, allowing for more blood to pass though. As we age,
our blood vessels and nitric oxide system become less efficient due to free
radical damage, inactivity, and poor diet, causing our veins and arteries to
deteriorate. Think of a fire hose as water rushes through it to put out a fire
- it needs to expand enough to handle the pressure, still keeping enough force
to put out the fire. Athletes and youth have the most optimal nitric oxide
systems, reflecting their energy and resilience.
Another way to increase nitric oxide is through diet, most notably by consuming the amino acids L-arginine and L-citrulline. Arginine, which can be found in nuts, fruits, meats and dairy, and directly creates nitric oxide and citrulline inside the cell (diagram 1).(6) Citrulline is then recycled back into arginine, making even more nitric oxide. Enzymes that convert arginine to citrulline, and citrulline to arginine need to function optimally for efficient nitric oxide production. We can protect those enzymes and nitric oxide by consuming healthy foods and antioxidants, like fruit, garlic, soy, vitamins C and E, Co-Q10, and alpha lipoic acid, allowing you to produce more nitric oxide. Nitric oxide only lasts a few seconds in the body, so the more antioxidant protection we provide, the more stable it will be and the longer it will last. Doctors are utilizing this science by coating stents (mesh tubes that prop open arteries after surgery) with drugs that produce nitric oxide.
Nitric oxide for athletes and bodybuilders
Increasing nitric oxide has become the new secret weapon for athletes and bodybuilders. Athletes are now taking supplements with L-arginine and L-citrulline to support the flow of blood and oxygen to the skeletal muscle. They also use them to facilitate the removal of exercise-induced lactic acid build-up which reduces fatigue and recovery time. Since arginine levels become depleted during exercise, the entire arginine-nitric oxide - citrulline loop can lose efficiency, causing less-than-ideal nitric oxide levels and higher lactate levels. Supplements can help restore this loop allowing for better workouts and faster recovery from workouts.
With nitric oxide deficiencies due to aging, inactivity, smoking, high cholesterol, fatty diets, and lack of healthy foods, increasing your nitric oxide levels can help increase your energy, vitality and overall wellness. The basic adage of eating well and staying active all makes sense now.
WARNING: If you have an existing heart condition or abnormal blood pressure, please consult your healthcare professional before taking supplements to increase nitric oxide levels.
1. Shinde UA, Mehta AA, Goyal RK. Nitric Oxide: a molecule of the millennium. Indian J Exp Biol 2000 Mar;38(3):201-10.
2. Furchgott RF, Ignarro LJ, Murad F. Discover concerning nitric oxide as a signaling molecule in the cardiovascular system. Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology 1998.
3. Guoyao W, Meininger CJ. Arginine Nutrition and Cardiovascular Function. J Nutr.2000;130: 2626-2629
4. Seidler M, Uckert S, Waldkirch E, Stief CG, Oelke M, Tsikas D, Sohn M, Jonas U. In vitro effects of a novel class of nitric oxide (NO) donating compounds on isolated human erectile tissue. Eur Urol. 2002 Nov;42(5):523-8
5. Taddei S, Virdis A, Ghiadoni L, Salvetti G, Bernini G, Magagna A, Salvetti A. Age-related reduction of NO availability and oxidative stress in humans. Hypertension. 2001 Aug;38(2):274-9.
6. Guoyao WU, Morris SM. Arginine Metabolism: nitric oxide and beyond. Biochem J 1998; 336:1-17
7. Tomasian D, Keaney JF, Vita JA Antioxidants and the bioactivity of endothelium-derived nitric oxide. Cardiovasc Res. 2000 Aug 18;47(3):426-35.
8. Wollin SD, Jones PJ. Alpha-lipoic acid and cardiovascular disease. J Nutr. 2003 Nov;133(11):3327-30 Guoyao W, Meininger CJ. Arginine Nutrition and Cardiovascular Function. J Nutr.2000;130: 2626-2629
9. Elam RP, et al. Effects of Arginine and Ornithine on Strength, Lean Body Mass and Urinary Hydroxyproline in Adult Males. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. Mar1989;29(1):52-56.
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