Our bodies function properly because of neurotransmitters, which are chemicals from our brain that communicate with our entire body. Nitric oxide gas acts as a neurotransmitter or signaling molecule between nerve cells in our body and plays a significant role in the cardiovascular and circulatory system - also interacting with nearly every other system in the body. It is important to know how nitric oxide works when it works best and how to supplement when production drops.
How nitric oxide is produced
Humans produce nitric oxide endogenously by several mechanisms. The two major sources of nitrate and nitrite for nitric oxide production are the endogenous L-arginine nitric oxide-synthase pathway, and the second is a plant-based diet with nitrate-rich vegetables.
Nitric oxide synthase with enzyme L-arginine
The primary way nitric oxide is formed is via nitric oxide synthase. A synthase is an enzyme that catalyzes the linking together of two molecules. The enzyme that catalyzes the production of nitric oxide is L-arginine. The amino acid L-arginine is naturally produced by the body and is also found in food sources like nuts, soy, and beans. The process looks something like this with simplified components:
Graph Source: Nitric Oxide Research Group
Plant-based, nitrate-rich diet
The second core mechanism for nitric oxide production is through supplying the body with high nitrate functional foods. Dietary plant-based nitrate converts to nitrite in the back of the tongue and then to nitric oxide in the upper gastrointestinal tract.
You can support both mechanisms of nitric oxide production by eating foods rich in nitrate and L-arginine, and L-citrulline.
Other pathways for nitric oxide production include:
How humans produce nitric oxide over time
From birth through childhood, nitric oxide production is operating at 100% at the beginning of life. Meaning we produce enough for our cells to communicate and function properly and that 100% marker is the starting point of our body’s ultimate nitric oxide production capacity. This is unless a child has a very poor diet or impaired nitric oxide production from MELAS syndrome, both of which cause nitric oxide production to decline prematurely.
Every decade from childhood onward, we lose about 10% of our nitric oxide production abilities. That means we’re producing fewer and fewer neuro transmitting molecules with age.
By the time we reach middle age, nitric oxide production decreases by about half. This is usually the age people begin noticing the impact of that decline through symptoms like:
- Impaired vision
- Memory loss
- Sleeping issues
- Diminished endurance
Dietary factors that affect nitric oxide production
For better or worse nitric oxide production is impacted by many dietary factors, including:
Proteins and amino acids
- Dietary protein - low protein decreases nitric oxide production
- L-arginine - substrate for nitric oxide synthase
- L-citrulline - increases arginine production
- L-glutamine - needed for adequate expression of nitric oxide synthase
- Glutamate - regulating nitric oxide expression in the brain
- Lysine - inhibits nitric oxide production
- Taurine - stimulate nitric oxide production
- Glucose - nitric oxide production is dependent on glucose
- Fructose - impairs vasodilation
- Saturated fats - inhibits nitric oxide production
- Unsaturated fats - helps regulate vascular endothelial function
- Omega fatty acids - increases production of nitric oxide
- Vitamin C, A, E, folic acid; vitamin K, and carotenoids - increase nitric oxide production in endothelial cells
- Calcium - stimulate nitric oxide production by endothelial cells
- Iron - Iron deficiency reduces nitric oxide synthase activity
- Zinc - regulates vascular, immunological, and intestinal function
- Magnesium - stimulation of nitric oxide production by endothelial cells
What increases or decreases nitric oxide production?
To increase nitric oxide:
- Eat leafy greens and root vegetables rich in nitrate
- Eat or drink raw watermelon and cucumber that contain L-citrulline
- Snack on walnuts, almonds and pumpkin seeds that are abundant in L-arginine
- Exercise at least 30 minutes a day
- Breathe through your nose and not your mouth
- Let your skin get sunkissed for at least 20 minutes a day
- Minimize salt & sugar
- Avoid saturated fats
What is the role of nitric oxide in the body?
Nitric oxide-deficient states are characterized by endothelial dysfunction, cell senescence, metabolic challenges, and oxidative stress. Nitric oxide-enriching therapy is expected to improve hemodynamics and metabolic markers.
- Dilates vessels
- Relaxes smooth muscles
- Relieves the pain of angina
- A cell communicator and neurotransmitter
- Increases blood and oxygen availability to the brain
- Helps improve immune system response
- Helps maintain cell functions
Learn more about the important role nitric oxide plays in this podcast featuring Lou Ignarro, the Nobel prize winner who discovered the signaling properties of nitric oxide.
How to test for nitric oxide levels?
Since nitric oxide is an incredibly short-lived gas with a half-life of roughly 1 to 3 seconds, it isn’t easy to measure levels at any given time. There are nitric oxide test strips you can source online from various companies, but many question the accuracy of results.
How long does it take for nitric oxide to work?
Nitric oxide is always working, as we are constantly producing it. When you’re looking for a punctuated boost, there’s a general time frame. A range of studies show that a nitric oxide boost takes about 90 minutes to begin once supplementation has been taken, but many have shown positive results sooner. Peak benefits can be seen at the 2-3 hour mark and should be noted when utilizing nitric oxide for sports endurance and times when you want a natural energy boost.
Does nitric oxide work?
Yes, nitric oxide works for improving overall health and is especially important for cardiovascular health. Supporting nitric oxide production in the body ensures that it works and does its cell-communicating job. In 1998, Lou Ignarro’s Nobel Prize winning research helped explain the role this vital gas has on many body functions. So yes, nitric oxide works to help keep our health in top condition. Boosting nitric oxide levels has also shown a proven benefit for athletic performance, and the significant point is that if athletes are leveraging the power of nitric oxide, everyone can.