You may not yet have heard about nitric oxide (NO), but this is one tiny molecule the scientific community is excited about. There are new studies published about it every month and there is even a medical journal called Nitric Oxide dedicated entirely to covering research on this topic!
NO is tiny because it is made of just two elements: nitrate and oxygen bound together. Nevertheless it has very powerful effects. It was first identified in the human body in the 1970’s but its function in health was not yet clear at the time. By 1998 enough was known about its critical roles that the scientists who first discovered it were belatedly awarded a Nobel Prize.
NO is produced in the inner layer of the arteries called endothelial layer where it promotes relaxation of the artery wall, thus increasing blood flow and regulating blood pressure. It also acts as a powerful antioxidant and controls inflammation now known to be at the root of heart disease and many other health problems, including cancer and dementia.
Nitroglycerin is a drug that has been in use since the 1880’s for chest pain and blood pressure though its mechanism of action was not known. Only recently have researchers discovered that it works by increasing levels of NO in the artery walls. Newer drugs including Viagra and others in its class work by causing NO to stay in the tissues longer thus enhancing its actions. This same effect can be achieved through more natural means and without the same side effects as will be discussed shortly.
Aside from the arteries, NO is also produced in other tissues and organs. In the lungs it promotes relaxation of the bronchi and increased air flow. Many cases of asthma, particularly asthma that starts in adulthood and is exercise-induced, may be the result of insufficient NO production. Childhood asthma is more likely to be allergy-induced, but a link to NO production is possible even in children.
In the digestive system NO promotes peristalsis, or a rhythmic motion that leads to complete digestion of food and healthy elimination. Therefore, insufficient levels of NO in the intestinal tract can lead to a range of digestive disorders as well as chronic constipation.
In the brain not only NO improves blood flow and therefore availability of oxygen, but also plays a role in neurotransmission. Symptoms such as poor focus, memory loss, and even depression could be a result of NO deficiency.
Nathan Bryan, PhD of the University of Texas Health Science Center based in the Houston Medical Center has been focusing his research on NO. Among other things, he studied herbs used traditionally in Chinese and other forms of medicine for heart disease and discovered that all of these herbs had one thing in common: they all raised NO levels in the body, some by as much as 100 or more times.
These findings lead Dr. Bryan to collaborate with Austin-based herbalist Janet Zand, OMD and together they authored a book entitled The Nitric Oxide (NO) Solution. I read this book and found it to be very informative and easy to read. As a result I decided to make it available through my office and website for anyone interested in learning more about this exciting topic.
The book goes over much of the research on NO and strategies to increase its availability. In order to make NO the body needs to draw its components from the diet and foods that were found to contribute the most to NO availability in the body are green leafy vegetables including kale, spinach and chard (but not lettuce) and beets.
The effects of food on NO levels can be dramatic and in a study described in the book endurance athletes who consumed two glasses of beet juice a day were able to exercise 16% longer before becoming exhausted and their muscles required 19% less oxygen to perform the same tasks. This is a dramatic result, and to think that it can be achieved with just beet juice is nothing short of amazing. Though beet juice may sound horrible to you it really isn’t. It tastes a bit like carrot juice and is especially pleasant with a squeeze of lemon.
Exercise was also found to raise the body’s production of NO as were deep breathing, meditation and yoga.
To find out if a person is suffering from NO depletion Drs. Bryan and Zand developed a simple saliva test using a test strip. You can buy a box of strips from my office or anyone stopping by can request a free test.
If you are highly deficient in NO, then diet and exercise may not increase levels enough for you to notice a rapid change in symptoms. Drs. Bryan and Zand also formulated a supplement that raises NO levels to a greater extent, though they strongly recommend combining it with appropriate dietary changes. This product, called Neo40, is also available from my office or online from my website. It is recommended for anyone who tests significantly depleted and/or has a health condition associated with low NO. Of course you might also want to give it a try if you are training for a marathon!