Does nitric oxide sounds like something spewing out a mid-century Cadillac’s tail pipe? Or does it bring to mind the “funny” gas some white-knuckled dental patients require before enduring the whine of a dentist’s drill?
To be clear, nitric oxide is neither of these things.
You’ll be forgiven if you’ve conflated nitric oxide with nitrogen dioxide—a dangerous air pollutant—or nitrous oxide—also known as “laughing gas”. All these compounds include nitrogen and oxygen, but the similarities end there. Their properties are distinctly different.
Nitric oxide (NO) is a vanishingly small, extremely simple gaseous molecule. It consists of a single atom of oxygen combined with a single atom of nitrogen. In 1992, scientists declared it the “Molecule of the Year,” after it became clear that this humble, colorless gas is an exceptionally important molecule in the human body.
That’s because it’s one of the few gases that serve as biological signaling molecules. It’s used throughout the body as an important cardiovascular system component. The body generates and releases this ephemeral compound (it lasts mere seconds) to signal blood vessels to relax. For a humble little molecule, NO is exceptionally important.
Our blood vessels possess a thin layer of involuntary muscle cells. When contracted, these cells cause the interior diameter of the vessel to decrease in size. This squeezes the blood flowing within the vessel, forcing it to move more quickly, under greater pressure. When faster blood flow is no longer required, the cells lining the blood vessels generate and release NO. This immediately signals the muscle cells to relax, allowing the blood vessels to return to their normal diameter. As a result, blood pressure drops back to normal.
As you can see, NO is crucial for the regulation of blood pressure. That’s why it’s helpful to ensure that the body has all the raw materials it needs to generate a ready supply of this important molecule. Recent research supports the finding that vegetable sources of dietary nitrate are important raw materials for the production of NO. In fact, this molecule is so important, the body has not one, but two separate pathways by which it can ensure a steady supply of NO.
Most recently, scientists have discovered a metabolic pathway that allows the body to convert dietary nitrates—from plant foods such as spinach, raw beets, etc.—into NO, through an intermediary compound, called nitrite. This explains why drinking raw beet juice has been shown to significantly reduce blood pressure among people with high blood pressure (hypertension).
The subjects in these experiments, who drank about 8 ounces of fresh, raw beet juice daily, experienced welcome drops in their blood pressure. People with normal blood pressure did not experience further decreases in blood pressure, so there’s no risk that getting too much dietary nitrate might cause overly low blood pressure. It simply doesn’t work that way. Rather, most people appear to get too few dietary nitrates—not too many. The solution to the problem is to eat more fresh, whole foods, including fruits and vegetables, with a special focus on raw beets, spinach and a few other foods such as arugula.
Want to know your current nitric oxide levels? Berkeley Test Strips are a non-invasive saliva test which allow you to check your Nitric Oxide (NO) levels in seconds and make immediate lifestyle and dietary changes.