The Sky is the Limit with Optimal Levels of Nitric Oxide
Written by Paul Bernitt, DHH
Director of Clinical and Wellness Services
Nitric oxide is a gas produced by the body and it is produced by almost all human cells. It is made naturally in our bodies and plays a vital role in signaling between cells, neurotransmission and immune response, to name just a few. The most widely-known function of nitric oxide is its ability to send a signal to the endothelial lining of our arteries to expand and contract, which allows us to maintain vital blood flow rich in oxygen and nutrients throughout our bodies. This molecule has a half-life of less than a second so we must produce enough to prevent life-threatening consequences as we age. Because of nitric oxide’s systemic effect, it is important to understand what this miracle molecule is and how to maintain and improve the body’s ability to produce it throughout our lifetime.
Nitric oxide was brought to worldwide attention in 1988 when Dr. Robert Furchgott, Dr. Louis Ignarro and Dr. Ferid Murad won the Nobel prize for medicine by discovering nitric oxide as a signaling molecule in the cardiovascular system. Since then, there have been almost 175,000 scientific papers written about nitric oxide which have shown many other benefits of this vital molecule. It has been said that this molecule may be the most important one in the human body because of its role, not only in the cardiovascular system but also in its involvement in nerve impulses from cell to cell in every tissue throughout the body.
We live in a world where heart disease continues to be the number one cause of death. In most cases, heart disease has more to do with the plumbing, such as damaged arteries, than the heart itself. In healthy arteries, nitric oxide signals the vasodilation (relaxation) response of arteries. Vasodilation increases blood flow, increases oxygen in the blood, and modulates blood pressure. Because nitric oxide is an electron donor, this miracle molecule is cardio-protective as it enhances and maintains arterial elasticity through its anti-oxidant effects. In unhealthy arteries, vasodilation is compromised due to damage caused by years of uncontrolled elevated blood pressure, high lipids and glucose in the blood and calcified plaque buildup in the arterial lining. Instead of the heart having smooth, flexible arteries to pump blood, the heart has to supply blood through narrow stiff arteries leading to serious cardiovascular conditions as we age.
This molecule has also been shown to improve insulin sensitivity which reduces diabetes complications and is known to improve other hormone functions in the body. When we become insulin resistant, our cells become less permeable, which limits the ability of glucose to be converted to energy and increases toxicity. When glucose cannot be efficiently converted into energy, the levels of glucose in the blood rise and are converted into fat. High levels of glucose in the blood and obesity are significant antagonists to nitric oxide production.
One of the most significant concerns in modern society is the proliferation of harmful viruses. What many people do not know is that nitric oxide provides a protective immune response by its involvement with inhibiting virus replication. The immune system has a better chance of fighting off the symptoms associated with viruses and other foreign invaders if nitric oxide blocks virus replication.
Healthy nitric oxide levels systemically influence many functions of the body. Nitric oxide insufficiency can spawn a wide variety of symptoms and diseases caused by pathogenesis, which can lead to infectious diseases, tumors, autoimmune processes and chronic degenerative diseases as we age. Low nitric oxide levels lead to increased sympathetic tone (constriction) which negatively influences blood flow, blood pressure and vasodilation. The immune response to stop the replication of harmful pathogens and viruses and other foreign invaders also diminishes. As nitric oxide production continues to diminish so does motivation and stamina for activity.
Nitric oxide is the neurotransmitter of bronchodilator nerves in human airways and counteracts bronchoconstriction. Nitric oxide increases the lungs’ ability to deliver oxygen throughout the body by signaling the nerves to dilate. When the physical demand of the body is increased through activity, nitric oxide is produced to stimulate vasodilation and a higher respiration rate. We can live a month without food and 3 days without water, but we have only minutes to live without oxygen. All of our cells require oxygen and the level of nitric oxide in the blood determines the amount of oxygen our cells can receive by dilating the arteries, signaling the lungs to increase respiration and signaling the heart to beat faster.
New studies show that the reduction of nitric oxide production due to arterial stress may be contributing to premature aging. Nitric oxide has been shown to inhibit premature telomere shortening. Telomeres are protective caps at the ends of the DNA molecules that make up our chromosomes. Much like the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces they protect the ends of chromosomes from damage. Each time a cell divides, the telomere gets shorter, soon it becomes so short that the cell can no longer divide to create new healthy cells. Science is discovering that nitric oxide reacts to tissue-derived oxygen radicals and by doing so reduces oxidative stress which can lead to the premature death of cells and shorter telomeres. The less oxidative stress we have, the longer our telomeres can be and the better our cells can reproduce and work as they should.Age is a major contributor to reducing nitric oxide production. As we age we produce less nitric oxide. The aging process, due to stress and damage to our arteries, contributes to less endothelial sensitivity and the thickening of our arterial lining. All of this, plus chronic inflammation, plaque buildup, stiffening of arteries, calcification, and eventually rupture of plaque leads to heart attacks and strokes. By age 40, most Americans only produce 50% of the nitric oxide as compared to their 20’s, by age 50, 35%, and by 60+ only 15%.
For more information about Nitric Oxide, please consider these references: