“Nitric oxide is one of the most important molecules in our body, particularly in cardiovascular medicine,” says James Rippe, MD, cardiologist, and founder and director of the Rippe Lifestyle Institute in Celebration, Fla. In fact, the 1998 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to a group of scientists who discovered that nitric oxide plays a pivotal role in heart function, but this role still isn’t commonly understood.
Nitric oxide itself can’t be put into a supplement. “It’s a colorless, odorless gas that has a half-life of milliseconds,” says Rippe. Our bodies make it, and for good health, that process needs to work effectively.
What Nitric Oxide Does
“Nitric oxide relaxes the inner lining of the arteries, the endothelium,” says Rippe, “And that’s really important for people who have heart disease.” When people who have angina (constricted arteries) are suddenly struck with debilitating chest pain, prescription nitroglycerin pills, taken under the tongue, bring relief by triggering the production of nitric oxide, which relaxes and dilates arteries. This enables more blood to reach the heart, and the chest pain subsides.
Through its dilating mechanism, nitric oxide helps control blood pressure and reduces risks of harmful blood clots that can cause heart attacks. It’s also good for the immune system, and further research may discover additional benefits.
Arteries that allow better blood flow make it easier to perform intense physical activity by delivering more oxygen and nutrients to the heart and other muscles—hence the popularity of supplements that promote nitric oxide production among athletes and bodybuilders.
How to Boost Levels of Nitric Oxide
In the human body, nitric oxide is made through two different pathways, using different building blocks. One uses the amino acids arginine and citrulline, and the other uses nitrates, which are found in the soil and in many plant foods. When we consume nitrates, some are converted into nitrites and then into nitric oxide.
Nitrates and nitrites are also used as food additives to preserve, flavor, and color processed meats, which can contain multiple unhealthy ingredients and have been linked to digestive cancers. Rippe recommends getting nitrates from vegetables, especially red beets and beet extracts.
Supplements may also be helpful because, as we get older, our ability to convert nitrates into nitric oxide becomes less efficient. Getting regular aerobic exercise helps, as it improves the conversion process and boosts natural nitric oxide production. Spending time outside in the sun can also increase nitric oxide levels and lower blood pressure, according to a British study.
Supplements to Boost Nitric Oxide
- Arginine and Citrulline: Studies have found that both these amino acids enhance nitric oxide production. In one British study, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, citrulline was more effective in lowering blood pressure and enhancing exercise performance. Both are available in supplements.
- Setria Performance Blend: This is a patented combination of citrulline and glutathione. Lab, animal, and human research, published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, found that citrulline with glutathione, a major antioxidant, enhanced nitric oxide levels more effectively than citrulline alone. Setria Performance Blend is starting to appear as an ingredient in a few supplement products.
- Beet Extracts: Studies have found that beets and beet juice improve fitness performance in healthy people of different fitness levels, improve heart function in older people with and without heart disease, lower blood pressure, and improve the function of aging brains. Supplements are available as beet juice or beet powders, or in combination supplements that include a beet extract.
- Arginine: Dairy products, meat, poultry, fish, pumpkin seeds, organic soybeans, peanuts, chickpeas, lentils, and spirulina.
- Citrulline: Watermelon is the richest source. Very small amounts are found in meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, and plant foods.
- Glutathione: Fresh fruits and
- Nitrates: Red beets, celery, and leafy greens are the top sources. Other good ones include endive, leek, parsley,
Chinese cabbage, fennel, and broccoli.
Did You Know?
Beets and beetroot juice are rich sources of nitrate, a building block of nitric oxide that may also help control blood pressure.
Did You Know?
Watermelon is the richest food source of citrulline, an amino acid that helps boost nitric oxide production.
Anyone who is sensitive to nitrates, and may experience headaches or other unpleasant reactions, should avoid them. Among people who get migraines, nitrates are a common trigger. Some people react only to nitrates in processed foods, but others may also not tolerate high-nitrate vegetables or supplements. Headaches are a known side effect of nitroglycerin medications, which are high in nitrates.
Laughing Gas is Different
The laughing gas used by dentists as a sedative is nitrous oxide—not nitric oxide. Although both contain nitrogen, they are very different gases. If your body produces more nitric oxide, it won’t make you laugh or sedate you.