There’s a little molecule that our bodies make called nitric oxide and it is really crucial to heart health. The main thing it does is cause what is called vasodilation. This is a fancy word that simply means it relaxes blood vessels. When this happens, they widen and blood circulation increases. With more blood moving around, more nutrients and oxygen get to cells more easily and efficiently. In fact, it turns out that heart disease, diabetes and erectile dysfunction are all associated with low nitric oxide levels. But lucky for you, there are some easy ways to increase nitric oxide levels in your body.
Eat Nitrates to Increase Nitric Oxide Naturally
Your body can quite easily turn nitrates into nitric oxide. However, nitrates only come from certain vegetables; one of the reasons it is so important to eat your veggies. Some veggies that are particularly good sources of nitrates are:1
Some blood pressure medications work by imitating nitric oxide but simply eating veggies high in nitrates can be as effective as drugs (without the side effects).2,3,4,5 Plus, nitrate rich foods, especially beetroot, can also help athletes maximize their performance.6,7,8,9.
Still, some people are weary of nitrates because sodium nitrate is often used as a preservative in some not-so-good foods like bacon, cold cuts and hot dogs. All of these are associated with cancer of the bowels and nitrates are likely the reason.10,11 This is probably because nitrates can make some nasty compounds that do indeed trigger cancer. However, veggies are also high in antioxidants, like vitamin C, that have a tendency to destroy these sorts of products.12 Thus, getting nitrates from veggies is great for your health, but not from processed foods.13
Get More Antioxidants
Although good for your health, nitric oxide is quite unstable and thus doesn’t last long. So, to maintain the health benefits of it, means replenishing it regularly.14 One way to help it last longer is with antioxidants. This is because antioxidants neutralize free radicals and free radicals neutralize nitric oxide.15 Plant sources of food like fruits and veggies (even the ones that aren’t high in nitrates) are always good sources of antioxidants. Some significant ones are:
Most people don’t realize it, but vitamin C is more than just an antioxidant. It is also an essential ingredient in collagen, the most common type of protein in connective tissue. Bone, skin, tendons, ligaments and so on, all can only be formed with vitamin C. In addition, it is necessary in the production of some neurotransmitters that allow brain cells to talk to each other.16
This is another antioxidant that helps shield cells from free radicals that seem to cause aging and diseases. This also ‘boosts’ the immune system by eliminating these problem molecules.17,18
This is actually a group of plant chemicals that have antioxidant properties. Most are pretty powerful and thus are associated with lower disease risk, including heart disease.19
This is a pretty significant guy too. It is one of the strongest antioxidants out there and is found in every cell of your body. It is sometimes considered the ultimate detoxifier.
Studies have shown that nitric oxide lasts longer in your body when antioxidants are around.20,21,22,23 Plus, veggies that are high in nitrates are also high in antioxidants, which is probably why they are so good at boosting nitric oxide levels.3
Supplements to Increase Nitric Oxide Levels
There’s a good chance that have seen ‘nitric oxide boosters’ on the shelf at your local vitamin store. These aren’t actual nitric oxide, that doesn’t work from a chemical standpoint, but they in fact help your body produce more of it. Two particularly common ones are arginine and citrulline.
Arginine is simply an amino acid that is ‘conditionally essential.’ This means that, in theory, a healthy adult makes enough of it on their own, but under certain conditions, someone might need it in their diet.24 Your body, chemically speaking, can simply take arginine and make nitric oxide with it. Studies show this to be the case, but not for everyone. It seems to only work for people with high blood pressure.25,26,27,28 This is probably because the body doesn’t make as much from arginine in people with normal blood pressure because they already have enough (obviously). It has also been shown in some, but not all studies to boost athletic performance, presumably because it increases blood flow.29,30,30,31,32 In any case, it is safe as you might expect given that it is an amino acid, but it can cause some stomach upset in supplement form.33,34
This is another amino acid, but, at least in theory, your body can make all it needs on its own. In fact, it is produced when arginine is made into nitric oxide. It can then be made back into arginine to make some more. Oddly enough, taking citrulline increases arginine in your bloodstream more than taking arginine increases arginine in your bloodstream! This is because a lot of arginine is broken down before it gets to your blood, but citrulline isn’t.35 Because of this, citrulline has been shown to boost athletic performance and lower blood pressure quite well.36,37,38,39 Fortunately, it is also safe to take, even in pretty high doses.40
Mouthwash Will DECREASE Nitric Oxide Production
I know, this sounds kind of weird, but hear me out. Of course, the whole point of mouthwash is that it kills bacteria in your mouth. But the problem is that it doesn’t pick and choose which bacteria it annihilates. It turns out that there is a type of bacteria in there that turns nitrates into nitric oxide! In fact, humans need these guys to make this conversion because it won’t happen otherwise.41 Studies even show this to be the case.42,43 It almost sounds crazy to say this too, but because mouthwash kills these bacteria that can now not make nitric oxide from nitrates, your blood pressure could go up, meaning that mouthwash can sometimes increase blood pressure.44,45
Furthermore, the failure to produce enough nitric oxide can contribute to diabetes risk. Since it opens up blood vessels, insulin gets around to cells properly. But if blood vessels are more constricted because of a lack of nitric oxide, it can’t. One study even showed that when folks used mouthwash 2 or more times per day, their chance of getting diabetes was 65% higher than people who didn’t use it at all!46 That’s pretty significant. But keep in mind, this is not suggesting that you should never use mouthwash, but probably not very often.
Exercise to Keep Blood Vessels Healthy and Producing Nitric Oxide
We all know that exercise is good for us and one of the reasons is endothelial health. This is just referring to a certain type of tissue that lines blood vessels. When we exercise, these cells produce nitric oxide to facilitate greater blood flow but also keeps arteries and veins flexible. Not exercising allows your blood vessels to become harder and less flexible and increases blood pressure and of course the chance of a vessel bursting.47
When you exercise regularly, your endothelial actually does a better job of making nitric oxide, even if you have high blood pressure or heart disease.48,49,50 The greater blood flow also means that antioxidants get around more easily and can scavenge for free radicals, again slowing the breakdown of nitric oxide.51,52 In fact, as little as 10 weeks of exercising for 30 minutes 3 times a week, endothelial cells become healthier and better at producing nitric oxide.48
Increase Nitric Oxide Levels and Increase Your Health
In review, nitric oxide increases blood flow and keeps blood vessels, and thus your heart, healthy. To maximize your bodies ability to produce it, eat plenty of veggies, get lots of antioxidants, consider supplements, avoid mouthwash and exercise.