Why NO is a big YES
NO – Nitric Oxide – is a vital chemical messenger which relaxes otherwise constricted and stiff blood vessels, increasing both oxygen and blood flow. So it’s vital for reducing blood pressure and therefore heart health.
Improved blood and oxygen flow is also critical for better brain function as the brain uses 20% of our oxygen intake.
It’s also a way to help in cases of ED – erectile dysfunction. Drugs like sildenafil work in exactly this way – boosting nitric oxide signalling, relaxing arteries and increasing blood flow. And adequate Nitric Oxide is equally important for women, because unhindered blood flow helps sexual arousal in both men and women.
The inside of the arteries produces NO
The interior surface of your arteries is called the endothelium and it produces nitric oxide. When oxidised cholesterol (plaque) builds up there – the condition known as atherosclerosis – you reduce your capacity to produce nitric oxide and your arteries then become rigid, making blood flow more difficult. Your blood pressure rises and that significantly increases your risk of a heart attack, stroke or sexual dysfunction.
Preventing this chain of events is why physicians prescribe nitroglycerin for heart and stroke patients. But beetroot has a similar effect!
The free radical connection
The normal action of Nitric Oxide is impaired by excess free radicals.
Some free radical action is a normal part of metabolism – when food molecules are broken down in the presence of oxygen to create energy.
But there are occasions when oxygen in the body splits into single atoms with unpaired electrons. Electrons need to be in pairs, so these atoms, now called free radicals, scavenge the body to seek out other electrons so they can become a pair. This causes damage to cells, proteins and DNA.
As a consequence, free radical damage is linked to cancer, atherosclerosis, macular degeneration, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and to ageing generally. Indeed, ageing has been defined as a gradual accumulation of free-radical damage.
Free radicals – and what is called oxidative stress – can be created when we consume high-temperature fried foods and alcohol, when we exercise to excess, or when we are exposed to tobacco smoke, residual pesticides and air pollutants.
A natural solution – anti-oxidants in food
If oxidative stress is the enemy of Nitric Oxide, anti-oxidants are the solution. You need to bathe your blood stream in anti-oxidants to neutralise excess free radicals. This ensures that your endothelial cells can produce the Nitric Oxide that will, in turn, keep your arteries supple and your blood pressure normal.
You do that with anti-oxidant-rich foods like berry fruits, kale, broccoli and spinach, and nitrate-rich foods like beetroot and leafy green vegetables.
The nitrate in these plants is converted into nitric oxide in the body. Indeed researchers were able to show that drinking 250ml beetroot juice could drop blood pressure in a group of normal BP people by 10 points in just two hours.
Top nitrate foods include:
- Beetroot and beetroot greens
- Spring greens
- Whole grains
This suggests that a regular mixed salad with rocket, lettuce, coriander, basil and beetroot can be a top blood pressure lowering dish.
Nitrates for boosting athletic performance?
It also suggests that nitrate-rich foods might boost athletic performance. And this seems to be true. A study (referenced below) where cyclists were given beetroot juice before training showed that their energy production became 11% more efficient. For a top athlete that is a huge competitive advantage.
But since it’s an all-natural intervention, don’t expect newspaper headlines along the lines of: ‘Beetroot Doping Scandal Hits Tour de France!!’
Protect your NO
Eating nitrate-rich foods is one important way to lower blood pressure. Another way is to increase your consumption of foods containing the amino acid L-arginine, which can be found in nuts, fruits and dairy.
Nitric oxide only lasts a short time in the body, so the more antioxidant protection we provide it, the longer the effects will last. In fact, surgeons are even coating stents (the mesh tubes that prop open arteries after surgery) with drugs that produce nitric oxide.
You can protect your nitric oxide by consuming anti-oxidant rich foods as outlined above, and by supplementing with anti-oxidant nutrients including vitamins C and E, beta carotene, Co-Q10, lycopene, lutein and selenium.
Exercise for increased NO
When you exercise, your muscles need more oxygen, which is supplied by the blood. As the heart pumps, the lining of the arteries releases nitric oxide into the blood, which relaxes and widens the vessel wall, allowing for more blood to pass through.
As we get older, however, our blood vessels and nitric oxide system become less efficient due to free radical damage, causing our veins and arteries to become less elastic. So maintaining activity and exercise is important for Nitric Oxide health.
There’s a final heart/brain benefit to nitric oxide: in addition to relaxing or vasodilating blood vessels, nitric oxide also displays anti-platelet properties, which helps to prevent inappropriate blood clotting.
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Beetroot juice and exercise: pharmacodynamic and dose-response relationships. Wylie LJ, Kelly J, Bailey SJ, Blackwell JR, Skiba PF, Winyard PG, Jeukendrup AE, Vanhatalo A, Jones AM. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2013 Aug 1;115(3):325-36. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00372.2013. Epub 2013 May 2.
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In vitro effects of a novel class of nitric oxide (NO) donating compounds on isolated human erectile tissue. Seidler M, Uckert S, Waldkirch E, Stief CG, Oelke M, Tsikas D, Sohn M, Jonas U. Eur Urol. 2002 Nov;42(5):523-8
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