Nitric Oxide: The Miracle Molecule!
Nitric oxide (NO) is a gas found in nature and made in the body. In the 1980’s it was discovered to be an important signaling molecule in the body with many important functions in the cardiovascular system. Hence why Dr. Louis Ignarro, one of the scientists awarded the Nobel Prize for this discovery, has named it the miracle molecule. NO is found throughout the body and best known for its ability to dilate (or relax) arteries and therefore lowers blood pressure and improves elasticity of our vessels which is critical for maintaining cardiovascular health. Because it improves overall circulation, NO has also been shown to improve cognitive function with enhanced memory and recall, erectile dysfunction/sexual function (in both men and females), and exercise performance. In addition to helping vessels become more elastic, NO works as an antioxidant, prevents blood clotting, and helps to lower inflammation.
So how can you get more of this miracle molecule?
- You need to get moving! The good news is we make it in the body and exercise is one of the best ways to increase our endogenous production of NO. This is why a sedentary lifestyle is so problematic and associated with cardiovascular disease and stroke.
- How we breathe makes a difference in NO production. Breathing deeply through the nose and into the diaphragm has shown to increase levels of NO as well.
- Eat a whole food, balanced, colorful plant-rich diet. Many foods contain significant levels of nitrates that convert to NO. Some of the best foods for this are beets, spinach, kale, brussels sprouts, and cabbage. Colorful plants (vegetables, fruits, herbs, and spices) are also great sources of antioxidants. We already know that antioxidants protect our cells from the oxidative stress, but these antioxidants will also protect NO from oxidation and enhance its activity. So, continue to get as many various bright colors in your diet as you can like organic berries, cranberries, and pomegranates. Spices and herbs are excellent sources of antioxidants as well. Top of the list are cloves, cinnamon, and cocoa- yes, dark chocolate!
Another nutrient that has been studied and shown to increase NO levels is the protein arginine. Arginine upregulates the enzyme in our body that increases NO. Therefore, getting enough protein in the diet will also help NO levels. Best sources of arginine are red meat, poultry, and fish. There are many great vegetarian sources as well. Top of the list are soy, peanuts and most nuts and seeds like almonds, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds.
I love the message behind increasing nitric oxide! With all the “best diet debate” out there, supporting the production of NO reminds us to not forget the foundations of good health. Eat a balanced, whole food plant-rich diet, keep moving, and do not forget to breathe!