Since 1998, nitric oxide has received a lot of attention due to its cardiovascular benefits. Few people realize it, but nitric oxide (NO) is the most important chemical compound for heart health. Adequate NO production is the first step in a chain reaction that promotes healthy cardiovascular function, while insufficient NO triggers destruction that eventually results in heart disease.

What is nitric oxide (NO)?

Nitric oxide is a molecule that our body produces to help its 50 trillion cells communicate with each other by transmitting signals throughout the entire body. NO promotes healthy dilation of the veins and arteries so blood can move throughout the body. It also prevents red blood cells from sticking together to create dangerous clots and blockages.

The body naturally generates nitric oxide in the endothelium that line the blood vessel walls.

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NO controls the overall blood flow. No matter how much oxygen your red blood cells load up, delivery is dependent on this third gas. Nitric oxide determines when and how the oxygen carried by the red blood cells is released into your tissues.

Without NO carried along with the oxygen, the hemoglobin wouldn’t be able to do its critical job of carrying oxygen from the lungs to the tissues and returning carbon dioxide from the tissues back to the lungs.

There have been over 60,000 studies done on NO in the last 20 years. In fact, in 1998 the Nobel Prize for Medicine was given to Dr. Robert Furchgott, Dr. Louis J. Ignarro, and Dr. Ferid Murad for discovering the signaling role of nitric oxide.

Up until then, conventional thought was that the respiratory system used only two gases, oxygen and carbon dioxide, where the red blood cells gathered and transported inhaled oxygen to your cells while picking up waste carbon dioxide to be exhaled.

Top benefits of nitric oxide

  • Improves oxygen delivery to every cell
  • Expands blood vessels and improves overall circulation
  • Lowers risk of plaque accumulation on arterial walls
  • Aids in preventing blood clots
  • Helps to regulate blood pressure
  • Enhances athletic performance and excercise
  • Critical to neurotransmissions in the brain
  • Helps prevent cognitive decline
  • Improves erectile dysfunction

Nitric oxide and the heart

Since 1878, doctors have used nitroglycerin as a potent vasodilator to treat heart conditions, such as angina pectoris and chronic heart failure. Before the important role of nitric oxide was discovered in 1998, doctors didn’t know the exact connection between nitric oxide and nitroglycerin.

In 2002, a research team led by Jonathan Stamler, M.D., HHMI investigator at Duke University Medical Center (DUMC), published their results studying nitroglycerin. They found an enzyme that not only breaks down nitroglycerin and releases a nitric oxide-related molecule, but whose action is suppressed in blood vessels made tolerant after repeated doses of nitroglycerin.

Shortly after heart patients take nitroglycerin, the blood vessels supplying the heart muscle relax, allowing oxygen-rich blood to nourish the heart and relieve pain. While it is known that NO — a breakdown product of nitroglycerin — plays a critical role regulating blood vessel relaxation, scientists still did not know the mechanism by which nitric oxide is generated from the nitroglycerin molecule.

While researchers in the past have searched for such an enzyme in different tissues, the Duke team found that the biochemical reaction that breaks down nitroglycerin takes place inmitochondria, a compartment within cells commonly known as the cell’s “powerhouse.”

The enzyme is called mitochondrial aldehyde dehydrogenase (mALDH), and only in mitochondria can the nitric-oxide-related product of the enzyme get further processed to blood vessel-relaxing nitric oxide.

The endothelium of your arteries produce nitric oxide. When plaque builds up in your arteries, called atherosclerosis, you reduce your capacity to produce nitric oxide. In the early stages of arterial disease, the endotelium is damaged blocking the production of NO, thus making the vessels vulnerable to inflammation and other negative factors.

Stamler said, “Blood flow to tissues is actually more important in most circumstances than how much oxygen is carried by hemoglobin,” he explains. “Within the tissues, the tiny vessels and the red blood cells together make up the critical entity controlling blood flow. Red blood cell dysfunction is likely a hidden contributor to diseases of the heart, lung and blood such as heart attack, heart failure, stroke and ischemic injury to kidneys.”

You can boost your levels of beneficial nitric oxide through your diet and lifestyle choices. Following a pro-antioxidant eating plan and limiting pro-inflammatory behaviors such as excessive alcohol consumption and smoking have been shown to benefit your body’s ability to make NO.

There are also supplements you can take with the most effective ones containing L-citrulline combined with L-arginine to boost nitric oxide.

The incredible benefits of nitric oxide could hold the key to a healthy heart, not to mention every other cell in your body that needs the regular delivery of oxygen!

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