If you are not already aware of just how critical nitric oxide then it’s time you were. This applies particularly if you suffer heart problems, blood pressure issues, or simply a man facing potency issues. Nitric oxide offers a simple and effective way of addressing all these issues.
Having pointed out the dangers of mouth breathing in recent blogs, I thought it would be a good idea to move on from the negative to the positive. There are many reasons for developing the habit of nose breathing and at least an equal amount to avoid using the mouth for the process. Perhaps the most significant of these though is the way that nose breathing promotes the generation and utilisation of nitric oxide in the body.
What is Nitric Oxide?
Nitric Oxide (chemical formula: NO) is comprised of a single oxygen molecule and a single nitrogen molecule. NO is one of the principal oxides of nitrogen (1) Oxides are chemical compounds that have at least one oxygen atom and one other element in their chemical formula (2). It comes in the form of a colourless, odourless gas.
NO is often confused with nitrous oxide (N2O) or, as it is more commonly referred to, laughing gas. N2O is an anaesthetic much used in dentistry. It is also sometimes misused by those who seek drug-induced euphorias of one one sort or another.
Nitric Oxide, on the other hand, is a gas that plays a fundamental role in many biological events. Breathing through the nose creates tiny amounts of NO but these are sufficient to play a vital in healthy human physiology. Mouth-breathing, on the other hand, will tend to circumvent these benefits.
Breath-holding techniques will tend to increase levels of nitric oxide in the body. In previous blogs, we have referred to several of these healthy exercises that promote NO but also come with a range of other benefits (3) (4).
Key Functions of Nitric Oxide
Nitric oxide is utilised in many ways within the body. It can play an important role in reducing high blood pressure. NO assists the body in maintaining homeostasis. It also helps the body’s immune defence system and even plays a role in neuro-transmission. Perhaps the greatest interest for many men though is its profound effect on genital health.
Nitric Oxide and Male Potency
The inner lining of our blood vessels, known as the endothelium, relies on NO to signal to the surrounding smooth muscle to relax. This will cause vasodilation which, in turn, will allow the blood vessels to expand and allow more blood to flow through those vessels. Essentially, this is the process by which the penis becomes firm.
Because NO dilates blood vessels and is good for our endothelial cells it has a highly beneficial effect on men’s ability to both get and maintain erections. Chemical interventions such as sildenafil (commercially available as Viagra) have much the same effect. It is good to know that those concerned about their potency can choose to promote increased nitric oxide in their bodies without taking on the risks and side effects of such pharmacological interventions (5).
Naturally, men have an interest in finding the best ways to boost their nitric oxide levels. If this can be done naturally, then so much the better. Most men wish to be able to relax and enjoy sex rather than being insecure about their potency. Working to naturally increase your levels of nitric oxide is an obvious approach for those wishing to enjoy longer and stronger erections.
Nitric Oxide and Blood Pressure
Because of the process mentioned above in relation to men’s sexual health, the pressure of nitric oxide will automatically lower blood pressure. This is, of course, great news for those of us suffering from the effects of hypertension. Such people can adopt a range of measures, dietary and exercise-related, to address this problem. See below for some practical suggestions in this regard.
A recent study demonstrated that imbibing a nitric oxide laced lozenge will lead to a reduction in blood pressure for hypertensive patients (6). As ever in this blog though, we look to lifestyle and dietary changes to promote fundamental change rather than the ever-increasing reliance on pharmacological interventions. Of course, it goes without saying that one should consult their doctor and take heed of his advice. On the other hand, it does no harm to adopt practices that will lead to healthier outcomes in their own right.
Nitric Oxide and the Heart
As we noted above, arterial elasticity helps vasodilation. This, in itself, will improve blood flow to each one of our organs. The heart is no exception to this. Vasodilation is enhanced by nitric oxide. Unfortunately, as we get older, the amount of nitric oxide in the body tends to decline. Because of this, we need to find ways to boost its production.
One of the key roles of nitric oxide is as a signalling messenger in the cardiovascular system. Beyond this, it also plays a role in EDRF (Endothelium Derived Relaxing Factor), hence NO is a vital component in maintaining a healthy heart. Other ways that nitric oxide maintains vascular integrity are via the process of inhibiting platelet aggregation and helping smooth muscle to proliferate. NO plays a profound role in the promotion of cardiac smooth muscle. In this case, it helps regulate cardiac contractibility.
If we do not have adequate levels of endothelial NO there will be an increased likelihood of dysfunction which leads to greater susceptibility to atherosclerotic disease. Beyond atherosclerosis, a wide range of potential problems affecting the heart have been linked to NO deficiencies: hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes mellitus, congestive heart failure, thrombosis and stroke to name but a few (7).
Nitric Oxide and the Brain
Nitric Oxide increases BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), colloquially known as miracle grow for the brain. I wrote a blog on BDNF and ways that we can increase it a couple of months back (8). A recent study found that BDNF levels are dependent on cerebrovascular endothelium-derived nitric oxide, hence the need to ensure that we have access to sufficient NO through diet and stimulating exercises.
The scientific evidence shows a clear link between endothelial function and cognition. We need healthy and flexible blood vessels to adequately cope with the demands of the brain. Several studies have demonstrated a clear relationship between levels of NO and BDNF. Again, promoting those levels is highly likely to lead to improved brain health and cognition (9).
How the Nose creates Nitric Oxide
Nitric oxide (NO) is made in the paranasal sinuses and flows continuously into the nasal airways of humans. This process pushes NO into the lungs with the inhaled air. Because it is mostly created in the nose, nasal breathing will help to promote healthy levels in the lungs and hence in the body (10). Openings to our paranasal sinuses are found on the roof and sidewalls of our nasal cavities. They are lined with tiny, hair-like structures, known as cilia which help to promote the function of the mucociliary escalator.
Nitric Oxide, as stated above, plays a vital role in the body’s defences. NO stimulates the motility of the cilia in our paranasal sinuses. Because of this, they decrease the likelihood of respiratory tract infections.
Exercises to promote Nitric Oxide
There are several simple and easy (and fun!) exercises that we can use to promote the production of nitric oxide in our bodies. They can feel quite odd at first but, as ever, persistence will be rewarded. In nothing else, they are likely to help reinforce the very healthy habit of nose-breathing.
Exercise 1: Nasal Humming
As we established previously, nitric oxide is produced in the paranasal sinuses. Given this, if we can find ways to stimulate the paranasal sinuses it is likely that we will increase the production of NO. Fortunately, such exercises have been developed in recent years. One such exercise is humming with the mouth firmly closed.
A recent study hypothesised that humming would enhance levels of nasal nitric oxide because of the oscillation of airflow over the paranasal sinuses. They took ten healthy subjects and instructed them in a humming exercise. Following the humming sessions, levels of nitric oxide increased 15 times. Oscillating airflow created a dramatic increase in gas exchange between the cavities.
The study concluded that humming may be a useful and non-invasive technique to be used to increase the body’s supply of NO (11).
Exercise 2: Ujjayi
In some ways, this is similar to the humming technique, although its history goes back far longer. The process comes from the pranayama techniques of yoga and, as such, have been practised for literally thousands of years. The word ‘ujjayi’ means ‘victory over’ and you sometimes hear Ujjayi referred to as ‘victory breath’.
The exercise itself consists of deep nasal breathing whilst slightly constricting the upper reaches of the throat. If done properly, this will produce sound as you breathe. Done properly, there will be a similar sound on the inhalation and the exhalation. At first, the breaths should be limited to three or four seconds but will get longer over time. There should be no gap between breathing in and out although the transition needn’t be rushed either.
Some of the positive effects of Ujjayi are likely to be attributable to the production of NO due to the process stimulating the cilia of the paranasal sinuses.
Other Ways to promote Nitric Oxide
Beyond these exercises, there are other ways to promote the production and distribution of nitric oxide throughout the body.
Exposure to Sunlight
Much like vitamin D, our bodies have the raw materials necessary to produce nitric oxide from their internal stores of nitrates and nitrites. Again, much like vitamin D, the body needs to be exposed to sufficient sunlight to activate the processes that lead to the forming of nitric oxide (12).
Exposure to sunlight is a vital component to allowing our immune systems to function at adequate levels in regards to our immune systems and the production of vitamin D and nitric oxide. Failure to have such exposure leads to a wide range of physiological and psychological problems. Recent measures whereby people are encouraged to not go out are very likely to have been counter-productive.
Amazingly, the ever-so-humble beetroot can help our bodies produce nitric oxide. This humble root vegetable contains extraordinarily high levels of dietary nitrates. The body uses these as components in the production of nitric oxide (13).
The benefits of beetroot can be gained in many ways. The simplest and most direct is just to consume the vegetable itself. We actually grow our own. Fortunately, it is one of the easiest vegetables to grow so even my modest skills are up to the task. Beyond this, we can reap the benefits by drinking beetroot juice or by taking supplements.
The delicious and readily available pomegranate is another rich source of dietary nitrate. This can be converted by the body to meet its need for nitric oxide. Pomegranate is also a very powerful anti-oxidant. Because of this quality, it plays an important role in helping to protect NO from oxidative destruction.
Beyond its effect on the production and protection of nitric oxide, it also helps to boost testosterone levels. Therefore, pomegranate represents something of a double whammy for men wishing to improve their sexual health; both nitric oxide and testosterone levels are improved (14).
Unfortunately, pomegranate is not so easily grown as beetroot, though it is readily available in most larger supermarkets (at least in the UK). Fortunately, pomegranate juice and supplements are easy to come by. Be careful with pomegranate juice, however, as many manufacturers sell drinks that turn out to be 50% or less pure juice. Make sure you check the labels. In the UK at least, if a drink made from fruit is described as ‘juice’ it must be pure juice. I am unsure of the legislation in other countries.
Taking L-Arginine supplements
L-arginine is a commonly available amino acid that will help your body produce nitric oxide. This is achieved via the action of an enzyme known as NO synthase. This, in turn, will help your blood vessels to dilate and assist blood flow and lower blood pressure.
The use of L-arginine supplements is a very direct way of improving your levels of nitric oxide and thus garnering the multiple benefits that this leads to.
The role of nitric oxide and just how significant it is to maintaining our physical, mental and sexual health does not normally attract the attention that it should. Because of its profound role in regard to vascular health, the need to both educate ourselves and to utilise this information is well-advised. Our breathing habits, in particular, need to be addressed. The production of NO in the paranasal sinuses are yet another great reason for developing the long-term habit of nose-breathing. Fortunately, beyond this, there is a range of either inexpensive or, in many cases, completely free ways of boosting NO levels. If one wishes to go the extra mile, then we can change our diet and even go so far as to take supplements. Given the wide, and rather exciting, range of benefits, why wouldn’t you at least include some of these measures in your health regime?