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Healthy Aging

Nitric Oxide Is a Tiny Molecule With Huge Health Benefits

Picture of American Specialty Health
By American Specialty Health on January 9, 2023
Nitric Oxide Is a Tiny Molecule With Huge Health Benefits
Nitric oxide plays a critical role in many vital functions in the body. But with age, the body makes less of it. Here are several ways to keep your levels up. 

Nitric oxide is an amazing little molecule that performs a wide range of vital functions in the body. It boosts blood flow to all your tissues and organs. It helps keep blood pressure and cholesterol at healthy levels. It stymies the formation of plaque, which in turn helps keep blood vessels flexible and healthy. Together, these benefits may help decrease your risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

But nitric oxide does even more. Let’s take a closer look at the host of other health perks it can bring.
The many ways nitric oxide keeps your body healthy

  • Blood flow.  Nitric oxide signals your blood vessels to relax and widen. This boosts the flow of oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to all the tissues of your body. And it helps bring hormones to your cells that your cells need for their many jobs.
  • Blood pressure. When blood vessels relax and widen, that helps keep blood pressure in healthy ranges. Healthy blood pressure, in turn, can help lower your risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
  • Blood vessel health. More relaxed, flexible blood vessels are healthier blood vessels. Nitric oxide also helps keep cholesterol in healthy ranges and may help curb the formation of blood clots.
  • Enhanced exercise performance. Better blood flow brings more oxygen to your muscles, helping to reduce fatigue and boost endurance. Other research suggests that nitric oxide may help strengthen muscle contractions during exercise, as well.
  • Brain function. Nitric oxide helps support the connections between brain cells, helping them communicate better with each other.
  • Bone health. Nitric oxide helps support healthy bones by balancing the signals to cells that build new bone with the signals to the cells that break bone down.
  • Wound healing and immune response. Nitric oxide may play a role in signaling the immune system to fight infections and heal wounds.
How can you maintain healthy levels of nitric oxide? 

As you age, your body tends to make less nitric oxide. And the nitric oxide you do have may not function as well as it did when you were younger. Chronic disease and inflammation, both more common in older age, may cause your body’s stores of nitric oxide to break down more quickly.

The good news is you can take steps to keep these levels up to par. To do so, it may help to understand the many different ways your body makes nitric oxide. Here are just a few of them, and some ways you can support their production process.


Exercise as an avenue for boosting nitric oxide 

Exercise is also thought to increase your body’s production of nitric oxide. And higher levels are in turn thought to enhance exercise performance, especially muscle endurance. One way nitric oxide does this is by increasing the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your muscles. This helps keep your muscles from tiring as quickly during your workouts. Make sure to keep up with your cardio and strength training workouts to help boost your nitric oxide levels.

Get tips for boosting your exercise motivation, even when you’re feeling blue.


How food can help you boost your nitric oxide 

Different foods play a role in helping to keep your nitric oxide levels up.

  • Foods high in nitrates. One of the ways your body makes nitric oxide is from a compound found in certain foods—mainly vegetables—called nitrates. Nitrates from food are converted in your mouth into another compound, called nitrites, with the help of bacteria in your saliva. These nitrites are then converted into nitric oxide in the stomach and in the cells that line your blood vessels.

    Some foods contain both nitrates and nitrites. But either compound, when ingested, can be converted into health-boosting nitric oxide.

    Here are a few nitrate-rich veggies you may want to add to your plate to help boost your levels of nitric oxide:
  • Red beets
  • Dark leafy greens (arugula, spinach, lettuce, endive)
  • Celery
  • Kohlrabi (German turnips)
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Fennel
  • Leeks
  • Parsley

Many other veggies and fruits also contain nitrates, just in lower amounts. So, eating a diverse array of fresh produce may help keep nitric oxide at healthy levels. And a mix of different fresh produce can help give your body all the other nutrients it needs to stay healthy. Learn how to choose nutritious foods to help fuel your body.

  • Foods rich in polyphenols. Dark-colored fruits such as berries, pomegranate seeds, and purple grapes are high in polyphenols. So are red wine and dark chocolate. (Just be careful not to overindulge in these.) But these foods are thought to support nitric oxide production. They may also help make nitric oxide more active so it’s better able to perform all its jobs. And polyphenols may help prevent it from breaking down as quickly in the body.  

  • Foods high in vitamin C. Foods high in vitamin C (like citrus fruits and berries) may help activate an enzyme that helps produce nitric oxide. And vitamin C may help your body better absorb nitric oxide, according to some research findings.

  • Foods high in the amino acids L-arginine and L-citrulline. While more research is needed, early findings suggest that these 2 amino acids may also play a key role in nitric oxide production.

    Arginine-rich foods include red meat, poultry, fish, whole grains, soy foods, beans, dairy, and garlic. Eating garlic also helps activate an enzyme that’s needed to convert L-arginine into nitric oxide.

    Your body makes L-citrulline, and you also get it in certain foods. By far, the richest source is thought to be watermelon. Although chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, cucumber, nuts, and squash may also be good sources.

    A word of caution regarding amino acid supplements. Talk with your doctor first before taking these. L-arginine and L-citrulline supplements are often touted as a way to boost exercise endurance by increasing nitric oxide levels. Some studies suggest they are safe. But these supplements are not FDA-approved and may have side effects, especially for those on prescriptions to treat high blood pressure, diabetes, or erectile dysfunction. The best bet is to check with your doctor. 

Are meats and cheeses high in nitrates and nitrites harmful?  

The nitrates and nitrites that occur naturally in fruits and vegetables are not thought to be harmful. But the sodium nitrates and nitrites added to smoked cheese and cured meats like hot dogs, deli meats, and smoked ham produce a different compound when cooked. They are converted into nitrosamines, some of which may increase your risk of cancer.

So, you may want to limit or avoid those foods. (Just remember not to confuse these harmful added sodium nitrates and nitrites with the naturally occurring ones found in fruits and vegetables.)

Learn about a plant-based diet that does not require you to eliminate meat.


Can mouthwash stop the production of nitric oxide?

Some findings suggest that using antibacterial mouthwashes can kill the friendly bacteria in your mouth needed to convert nitrates from food into nitrites, and later into nitric oxide. More research is needed to confirm this. But if you’re trying to boost these levels, you may want to avoid using a commercial mouthwash. Or, at least try not to use mouthwash for several hours before and after you eat nitrate-rich foods. Some experts suggest swishing with a mix of water and baking soda instead.


Can nitric oxide trigger migraine headaches? 

You may have heard that some nitrate-rich foods can trigger migraine headaches in some people. These foods include red wine, dark chocolate, processed meats, and even certain vegetables.

Nitric oxide widens blood vessels and increases blood flow to all your tissues, including your brain. And excess blood flow to the brain is thought to be behind migraine headaches.

If you get migraines, pay close attention to whether any of these foods seems to be a trigger for you. If so, talk with your doctor. Research suggests that only some people are susceptible to migraines from nitrate-rich food. 


Can your body make too much nitric oxide?

Some findings suggest nitric oxide can reach harmfully high levels due to certain health problems. These include acute inflammation from sepsis  and narrowed blood vessels seen in heart disease.

Your diet isn’t likely to raise these levels too much. Still, it’s a good idea to limit processed meats and stick to a balanced food plan that includes many types of fruits, veggies, whole grains, non-saturated fats, and protein. That can limit the risk of toxic nitric oxide levels in the body. But talk with your doctor if you have concerns about your levels becoming too high.


Nitric oxide—not to be confused with nitrous oxide or nitrogen oxide

Nitric oxide and nitrous oxide may sound the same, but the similarities stop there. Nitrous oxide, also known as “laughing gas,” is a gas used mostly in dental procedures to dull pain. 

Nitric oxide is also entirely different from nitrogen oxide, an air pollutant mainly produced from burning fossil fuels in cars and power plants.


Boosting nitric oxide one step at a time 

With the many ways nitric oxide protects your health and keeps your body and brain running like well-oiled machines, think about taking some of these steps to keep your levels in healthy ranges. You don’t have to take all of these steps at once. Taking one at a time may really help. Think about adding more beets and dark greens to your plate. Keep up with your workout routine. And talk with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns about boosting nitric oxide.


Not a Silver&Fit® member? Learn more about everything the program has to offer, including more helpful healthy living tips like this, here on our website.


This information is not intended to take the place of regular medical care or advice. Please check with your doctor before using this information or beginning any self-care program. Images used for this article do not depict any members of the Silver&Fit Program.


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This article was written by Gail Olson, edited by Jason Nielsen, and clinically reviewed by Elizabeth Thompson, MPH, RD.


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