What Is Nitric Oxide? Benefits, Uses, and Side Effects

What Is Nitric Oxide? Benefits, Uses, and Side Effects
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Nitric oxide is a gas, but like oxygen, it is a vital part of our body chemistry. It is a free radical, i.e., it has an unpaired electron, which is sometimes denoted by a dot in its chemical formula, i.e., NO Wikipedia. So much so that in 1992 when its significance was recognized as a chemical messenger within all mammals, it was announced as the Molecule of the Year by the American Association for the advancement of Science.

It hit the headlines again in 1998 when three scientists were awarded a Nobel Prize for discovering that it played a vital role in the cardiovascular system by regulating our blood pressure and keeping our blood vessels healthy.

How does nitric oxide help the body?

Further research has shown that nitric oxide is vital to much of our body and keeps us healthy in many ways. It plays an active role in our immune system and nervous system, including our brain activity. Too much or too little of this molecule can affect many chronic conditions. Now research is focused on this molecule to discover its potential for medical treatments.

Nitric oxide is produced within the body during the breakdown of food and is quite an unstable molecule that degrades reasonably quickly due to its free radical condition. For its presence to be increased, we need to introduce nitrates from natural sources such as green vegetables and beetroot. Let’s not forget about the amino acid, arginine, which is also an active part in the production of NO.

female athlete performing long jump after nitric boosting preworkout
What are the benefits of nitric oxide?

Within the blood system, it is found to be released by the cells lining the blood vessels. This produces the effect of relaxing the blood vessels and therefore keeping them flexible and easing the flow of blood around the body. This reduces the pressure needed to drive the blood to certain areas of the body and thus relieves the problem of high blood pressure. It is also believed that the presence of this chemical also makes it easier for the red blood cells to release oxygen around the body.

It contains anti-inflammatory properties

Another benefit to the blood system is that it also has an anti-inflammatory effect which stops the white blood cells and platelets adhering to the lining of the blood vessels. This build-up is the plaque that blocks up our veins and arteries, leading to angina.

It’s used in the treatment of ED in men

A lack of nitric oxide has found to be one of the possible causes of erectile dysfunction in men. As the nitrous oxide eases blood flow by relaxing the blood vessels and relaxes the muscle, thus aiding the increased blood flow necessary to cause and sustain an erection. This is of particular interest in the treatment of cardiovascular disease as erectile dysfunction due to this problem is often a symptom and sometimes a precursor to this particular health issue.

Although it must be said that a lack of nitric oxide is not the only cause of erectile dysfunction, and other causes would not lead to cardiovascular disease.

Nitric oxide supports cognitive health

Working as a neurotransmitter, NO is an essential factor in the brain, too much or too little can impair brain function and memory and possibly lead to things like depression or Parkinson’s disease. There is also a connection between Alzheimer’s disease and nitric oxide.

If there is not enough nitric oxide present, then blood flow to the brain can be inhibited, or inflammation could occur. This lack can also contribute to an imbalance in the free radicals and antioxidants in the brain. A situation called oxidative stress. Any or all of these things can cause cognitive problems.

Improves the immune system

Nitric oxide is also created by some cells of the immune system, and this makes it essential in the defense against pathogens and bacteria. Once present, it regulates the activity of many inflammatory and immune cell types, including their growth and death.

Side effects of nitric oxide

Nitric oxide has very few side effects, but its presence seems to need careful balance to be genuinely beneficial. As it is a reasonably unstable molecule, it is produced by the body and then degrades quite quickly, so it is essential to eat the right food to make sure that enough nitric oxide is available to the body. The best natural source of nitric oxide is to eat nitrate-rich food such as certain green vegetables and beetroot. The body will turn the nitrate into nitric oxide from these natural sources.

Nitric oxide does have a contradictory nature when it comes to cancer, and this depends on many factors, not least the concentration of NO and the type of tumor concerned. The unique aspect is in its role as a signaling molecule. It can cause cancer cells to destroy themselves by apoptosis which is cell death due to the healthy growth and development of an organism. The bad being an inherent irony of cancer as the nitric oxide promotes the growth of the very blood vessel cancer needs to grow.

Don’t confuse sodium nitrates with natural nitrates

Some people are concerned about nitrates, but this is due to confusing them with sodium nitrates which are often found in processed food, being used as a color fixative or preservative primarily in cold cuts, bacon, and hot dogs. Eating these processed foods have been linked to bowel cancer, and nitrates are linked to this. This is not the natural nitrates found in green vegetables or beetroot though.

Natural foods to boost nitric oxide levels

Green vegetables have been thought to be healthy for many years, and it is probably because of the nitric oxide affecting the body in positive ways that have led to this belief. There is also strong evidence now that nitrates, especially from beetroot, are improving the exercise and performance in athletes.

It has now been shown in studies that beetroot juice can help lower high blood pressure, and this is believed to be due to the nitrates in the beetroot to boost the nitric oxide in the body. A review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition spoke of research that showed the benefits of nitrate consumption on blood pressure, cerebral blood flow, arterial stiffness, and platelet function.

Nitric oxide booster supplements for athletes

The best natural way to boost your NO levels is to eat fresh green vegetables such as celery, cress, lettuce, spinach, chervil but the top of the list are beets such as beetroot. Beetroot juice is becoming popular as a performance enhancer with athletes as it supplies the nitrates the body needs to naturally release the nitric oxide, thus improving the blood flow around the body.

Of course, with our busy lifestyle, it is not always easy to access fresh vegetables or beetroot, so there are now supplements on the market which are formulated to increase NO production to keep you healthy. As nitric oxide itself cannot be packaged in supplement form, the supplements usually consist of the amino acid Arginine which produces nitric oxide when it is processed by the body. They can also include grape juice, vitamin C, and other beneficial additives to assist the production of the nitric oxide and its effects upon the body.

If you are looking for a supplement for your general health then you would be better with a plant-based alternative, whereas if you are looking to improve your athletic ability the sports-related supplements seem to be instant hitters for improved performance and recovery. These should only be taken as directed as these often have a high one-time dosage purely for instant performance.

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