Stress, especially chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), takes a visible toll on mental health. However, the underbelly of stress is chemically laden, and sometimes the burden on our health isn’t as visible as the mental torment. What is rarely discussed is the impact that stress has on nitric oxide production and vice versa; the effect that lower nitric oxide has on stress.
What happens when we experience stress?
Stress and stressful events trigger a cascade of hormones and involuntary bodily functions to occur. Our sympathetic nervous system becomes engaged, and our adrenal glands begin pumping the hormone epinephrine throughout our body. When this happens, our heart begins to race, our blood pressure rises, we breathe faster and shallowly, and our senses go into overdrive. It triggers the HPA network -- the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands. The adrenal glands start releasing cortisol to keep the body on high alert for survival. When a threat finally subsides, cortisol levels begin to drop, and the stress response that just occurred begins to wind down.
Many people don’t know how to regulate their body’s response to stress, however big or small the event is. In some cases, an event so traumatic can cause PTSD, and any trigger can make a person’s physical body revisit the event. Our bodies have no clue if the threat is still present or if our brains rev it up. All stress is authentic according to our sympathetic nervous system.
Over time, stress lowers nitric oxide production
Preliminary studies indicate that continual, unregulated exposure to stress responses lowers the body’s ability to produce nitric oxide. One particular study on veterans in San Francisco found that veterans’ endothelial health with PTSD was lower than vets of the same age without PTSD. The biomarker of nitric oxide production, “global arginine bioavailability ratio” (GABR), was examined to determine this link. The study concluded that the effects of PTSD on mental, physical, and biological wellbeing are associated with dysfunctional cellular processes, including the production of nitric oxide - a key cell communicator.
The cortisol and nitric oxide relationship
The primary stress hormone, cortisol, acts in the body like an alarm system. When that alarm system goes off too often over time, it takes a toll on your body and can cause additional stress, weight gain, headaches, digestion problems, and other unwelcome issues. One huge undesirable, underlying issue that arises is a diminished ability to produce nitric oxide on par with your age group. This is important to know since nitric oxide production decreases with every passing decade.
What is nitric oxide used for in the body?
On the flip side, nitric oxide is a neuromodulator with the ability to regulate anxiety-like behavior induced by stress triggers. Studies show that nitric oxide inhibits cortisol production and therefore helps regulate stress. In some clinical settings, nitric oxide has been used for managing stress-induced anxiety-like behaviors.
We can expect a rapid nitric oxide production decline when we make poor lifestyle choices like poor eating habits and little exercise. That rapid decline in nitric oxide production means diminished ability to keep stress hormones, like cortisol, in check.
The moral of the cortisol-nitric oxide relationship is that we want to keep our nitric oxide levels up by contributing to sound lifestyle choices and controlling our responses to stress. A recipe for success is maintaining a plant-based diet rich in nitrate, getting regular exercise, nose breathing to amp up nitric oxide levels, and using stress management techniques to keep our parasympathetic nervous system engaged.
Nitric oxide and mental health
We talk a lot about the importance of nitric oxide for maintaining physical health, healthy aging, and athletic performance. But it’s just as important to know that nitric oxide plays a vital role in mental health and that our bodies use this gas to regulate stress hormones. With age comes declining nitric oxide levels and an increased probability of exposure to stressful events. Knowing just how important nitric oxide is to your underlying health, you can take charge to boost nitric oxide levels and truly live your best life.
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