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Is Nitric Oxide Our Internal Wonder Drug Against Poor Health?

In 1992 nitric oxide (“NO”) was named “Molecule of the Year” by the  journal Science and in 1998 three US scientists were awarded a Nobel Prize for their discovery of NO as a key messenger in signalling problems in our cardiovascular system.

Dr Luis Ignarro, one of the Nobel laureates, considers that NO is one of the most significant molecules in the body and that it is “absolutely crucial to your well-being”. He also refers to NO as the body’s internally manufactured “wonder drug”.

NO has a short life and must be renewed continuously in our body. By age 40 most men only produce 50% or less of NO than they did in their teens or twenties. By age 50 most women have an available NO level of about 35% of what they had in their twenties.

Health benefits of NO 

In the context of the respiratory system researchers at the National Heart and Lung Institute (“NHLI”), London and elsewhere in the UK have shown that NO is the mechanism which keeps the bronchioles open as it serves to counteract constriction. Researchers showed increased amounts of NO being exhaled by asthmatics. This was explained by the NHLI as being related to the inflammatory process. NO is not produced in sufficient quantity by asthmatics.

According to Dr Robert Fried (1999) increasing NO by inhaling it has therapeutic benefits in lung related diseases such as pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure) and respiratory distress syndrome. Research indicates that new born babies with respiratory failure improve significantly when given NO to inhale.

For sleep apnoea sufferers Dr Jon Lundberg and Dr Eddie Weitzberg in a paper titled “Nitic Oxide in man” published in Thorax wrote:

“Since NO is continuously released into the nasal airways the concentration will be dependent on the flow rate by which the sample is aspirated (i.e. breathed in). Thus, nasal NO concentrations are higher at lower flow rates”

So if we breathe less and slow down our nasal breathing, NO will accumulate in a greater concentration and may combine with a greater accumulation of CO2 to oxygenate our tissues and cells.

In a groundbreaking study published on 13 April 2015 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jonathan Stamler, cardiologist and professor of medicine at Case Western University, Cleveland concluded that the respiratory cycle involves a third gas (in addition to oxygen and CO2) – NO – that controls the release of oxygen from red blood cells into the tissues that need it. The study used mice which lacked the ability to carry NO in their red blood vessels. They found that the mice lacking in NO could not oxygenate their muscle tissue. Their blood flow autoregulation would not work in the absence of NO. Despite their red blood cells being able to carry oxygen they could not convey it to the tissues and cells.

You can read the article on the study here

In the context of the cardiovacular system NO is a key signalling messenger. Stroke, heart failure, hypertension and diabetes have all been linked to abnormalities in NO signalling. NO has the ability to relax the smooth muscle layer in blood vessels. This, in turn, increases blood flow, decreases blood pressure and relieves angina. It also lowers serum cholestrol levels and acts as an anticoagulant.
In the context of the nervous system NO is thought to play a critical role in memory and learning. Recent research suggests that for individuals suffering from a stroke, an increased production of NO can decrease the chances of brain damage. A paper published in 2015 in the journal Functional Neurology concludes:
“For neurologists, there is tremendous interest in the involvement of NO in the mediation of neurotoxicity and its role in cerebrovascular diseases, seizures, neurodegenerative disorders and pain. It is suggested that modulations of the NO pathway may become more useful and important in the development of new therepeutic strategies for various neuropsychiatric diseases”
In the context of the immune system NO plays a critical role in the function of the immune system by combating toxins and helping to provide a strong internal defence system. It defends against a broad spectrum of microbial pathogens. It has also been shown to inhibit the replication of influenza viruses.
In the context of the relaxation response the following conclusions were reached in 2005 by Dr Jeffrey Dusek after conducting a randomized controlled trial involving 46 subjects :
  • NO increases throughout the body after relaxation response training
  • the relaxation response may be mediated by NO helping to explain its clinical effects in stress-related disorders
  • NO may serve as a biological mechanism underlying the relaxation response. It provides the first empirical support for the hypothesis that NO is a mediator of the relaxation response

I recently undertook a 5 day yoga and meditation course. Benefits for me included feeling more relaxed, centred and  greater patience. For example things like  traffic congestion did not frustrate and annoy me as it did previously. It is a real bonus to now learn of the additional health benefits that an increased NO input gives me!

How to boost NO

The best known ways of increasing NO in our bodies are:

  1. exercise
  2. eating foods rich in nitrates and nutrients (eg arginine* and citruline#)
  3. nutritional supplements
  4. nose breathing

*soy products, fish, nuts, chickpeas, oats, wheatgerm, lean meats and dairy products

# cucumbers, canteloupe and watermelon

I am indebted to the Buteyko Professionals International website for their excellent research material for which I have heavily relied upon in writing this post.

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