In this article you will learn:
Why nitric oxide is and why it is important for your health
Why nitric oxide supplements may be overrated
How to support your body's natural production of nitric oxide
In the 1992 nitric oxide won the "molecule of the year" award for its role as a signaling molecule in the body (telling your cells to do various important things as a chemical messenger) as well as its role in maintaining healthy circulation by promoting the relaxation of blood vessel walls. This last part is very important, because over time our blood vessels stiffen up and become less flexible. Among other factors, this lack of flexibility eventually leads to micro-lesions (from the blood pumping against the rigid walls and pushing at them to expand), and these micro-lesions end up leading to inflammation, build-up, stroke and heart disease.
This is why probably one of the oldest and simplest principles for good health is circulation. When things move they are healthy, when things are stagnant they rot. You can notice this anywhere in Nature, and your body and its insides are no different. You have to keep things moving if you want them to grow and be abundant. This works with your blood as it does with your cashflow.
So far, so good. There is actually a lot of technical and scientific detail to get through when it comes to understanding nitric oxide's role and effects on the body, and my goal with this article will be to try to sift through all that stuff and give you some of the main points.
Circulation is important, and your body needs to produce sufficient NO (nitric oxide) in order to maintain not only healthy circulation but proper signaling. So now, the real question is: are all of those sexy nitric oxide supplements being marketed today to solve this problem really worth their marketing?
As with everything in nutrition, the answer is: it depends.
First we have to understand that good circulation is a product of many things. Like every other area in health, there is no "just one thing" that causes anything. Every phenomenon, every process, is a product of multiple processes unfolding simultaneously. If you really want to improve anything, you have to account for all of those processes.
When it comes to circulation, having relaxed blood vessels and sufficient NO production is definitely one portion of it - but there are other key ingredients too that many people miss and instead drop their coins on expensive NO supplements thinking they are "done" with optimizing their bloodflow. Below are a few things to consider:
1. Vitamins E and K will determine the clotting action (or lackthereof) of your blood
and help to maintain optimal blood flow (vitamin E thins it, vitamin K helps to clot).
You can test this with a simple blood test called an INR test.
2. Digesting your food and having plenty of enzymes as part of your nutrition plan
will help to clean your blood of residual metabolic byproducts like uric acid (from
eating protein) and excess cholesterol. One strategy people do is take protease
supplements (like this one) in between meals. A great way to see the effect of this
is to get a live blood microscopy scan.
3. Regular exercise, particularly high intensity training, is very important for
maintaining heart strength and helping blood move into and through capillary
zones. This capillary blood flow is very important because it delivers valuable
nutrients to your extremities and allows for better flexibility and recovery.
4. Heat increases circulation, cold reduces it. Both can be therapeutic in their own
way, but you've got to be hot if you want to get the blood to move. This is why
traditional Asian practices highlight the importance of keeping your stomach (core)
warm and drink hot tea regularly.
5. Eating garlic, onions, turmeric, cayenne, cinnamon and many other healthy foods
help to keep the blood moving and circulation clean due to their unique chemical
properties. Herbs like Kaempferia (Thai ginseng) have a variety of compounds that
All of these things are important to incorporate into your regimen to some degree if you want good circulation. Remember that health is a practice, which means it is a combination of many things that have to be done daily and consistently. With all of this said, let's now consider a few more technical things about nitric oxide that can help you sift through all of those sexy NO ads on Facebook or Instagram:
1. The body does need nitric oxide to do many things, including relaxing your blood
vessels (and lower your blood pressure as a result), but how it does this is through
2 distinct pathways: the arginine pathway and the nitrate pathway. The first requires the amino acid arginine, and the second utilizes nitrates from food (like
beets, spinach and arugulua which are high in nitrates) and converts them through
several steps once inside your body until they get into usable NO.
2. Unfortunately, about 80% of the nitrates we ingest are actually excreted from the
body, which basically means that only a small portion of the nitrates in anything,
whether it is spinach or a fancy red beet powder, actually get turned into nitrites
and then nitric oxide.
3. Nitrates are converted into nitrites by your oral bacteria, so the health of your
mouth is very important in this process. This is perhaps one reason why oral health
is so intimately linked to the rest of the body, including heart health. But another
important factor is that nitrites (the next step after nitrates) can combine with
protein to form a dangerous, cancer-promoting compound called nitroso
compounds.(1) This is why processed meat that has added nitrates is very
dangerous to eat on a regular basis, and it is also why consuming a high nitrate
supplement (like a fancy beet powder) along with a protein source (like if you put it
into your protein shake) is probably not a good idea over a long period of time.
4. High nitrate intake has been associated to several deleterious outcomes, namely
inhibiting thyroid activity and disabling the iodine symporter in the cells.(2)(3)(4)
This means that if you have hypothyroidism, using high amounts of nitrates from
supplements (which are often 10x more than what you would get in a healthy diet)
may not be a good idea, so monitor closely.
5. The arginine pathway, which is the other pathway the body creates NO, has
several rate limiting steps that prevent you from saturating your body with nitric
oxide by simply taking a bunch of arginine.(5)(6) Remember, the body is smart. You
need arginine for it to do its thing, but in the end your body is the decider of how
much it will produce. Unfortunately, based on your genetic roll of the dice this can
also make things complicated and necessitate a customized nutrition protocol
(since some people have a hard time utilizing arginine or optimizing their NO levels
But wait... you took a handy saliva strip test that said you were low on nitric oxide, and after taking their supplement solution it turned dark red! That has to be proof the supplement works, right?
Unfortunately, it's not as simple as this common protocol would have you believe.
These testing strips are accurate, but they do not test nitric oxide. They test the levels of nitrates in your saliva. Of course if you ingest a lot of nitrates, they will be excreted in your saliva and increase the rating! Remember that 80% of the ingest nitrates we consume get flushed out. What this means is that these tests are at best an inference, meaning that if your numbers are high you are "likely" getting the highest probability of creating more nitric oxide in your body - but they do not test nitric oxide levels in your blood.
Currently, there is no consumer-based, affordable method to measure your nitric oxide levels directly as it is a chemical that your body creates through several complicated steps down the line.
So, what do you do? Should you invest in nitric oxide supplements like those fancy beet powders or arginine supplements?
The answer as always is complicated. If you stick to the first 5 recommendations in this article, you will have a great start. The next part is putting together a nutrition program that involves all of the nutrients, similar to what I discuss here. A final, more nuanced step, might be to get a genetic analysis and see where you may have SNPs in terms of NO production. Some people with under-performing NOS enzymes (nitric oxide synthase) for example may benefit from additional NO supplements in the form of arginine compounds, like this one.
In the end it is all about The Basics. Keep a warm stomach, exercise daily and keep your body moving, eat a healthy diet and take in lots of nutrition. Moderate stress and toxic substances as much as possible and learn about your body through health testing. The rest your body will figure out without the need for fancy test strips or expensive purple powders.