Cardiovascular health is a subject of intense complexity, and it has provided medical researchers with more than a few surprises over the years.
One prominent example is a breakthrough that occurred in 1987. By this point in history, it had become abundantly clear that heart disease is a grave health issue that must be addressed. Prevalence has continued to rise, and today heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States (it accounts for 1 out of every 4 deaths).
Today heart disease is the leading cause of Death in the United States
Leading up to 1987, researchers understood that the narrowing and stiffening of arteries—caused by atherosclerosis, arterial calcification, and related factors—is one of the biggest risk factors for the development of heart disease. They lacked a comprehensive understanding, however, of how to protect against it.
Researchers had previously identified an unknown molecule that they referred to as an endothelium-derived relaxing factor (EDRF)—an agent produced by the body for cardiovascular signaling and protection. The major breakthrough of 1987 came when researchers discovered that this mystery molecule is actually nitric oxide (NO).
Prior to this discovery, this simple diatomic molecule was seen as nothing more than an air pollutant—no one ever suspected that it might be an endogenously produced, critically important aspect of cardiovascular health.
Make no mistake: the mechanisms of nitric oxide are complex and sometimes contradictory, and it shouldn’t be seen as a miracle cure for the heart. It’s actually a free radical (the reactive oxygen species that we’ve been told causes oxidative-stress-induced aging and all sorts of other issues), and yet its presence in the body is one of the most powerful known defenses against the narrowing and hardening of arteries.
Nitric Oxide is becoming known as one of the most powerful defenses against narrowing and hardening of the arteries
How to get more Nitric Oxide
So here’s the problem: research has revealed that endogenous nitric oxide levels tend to decline with age, and that Nitric Oxide (NO) deficiency can lead to all sorts of health problems, including diabetes, hypertension, and of course, heart disease.
And the troubles don’t stop there. Arterial narrowing leads to overall decreased circulation of oxygen and nutrient-rich blood throughout the body—an unfortunate process that accelerates nearly every aspect of aging.
Luckily, nitric oxide levels can be increased through supplementation and lifestyle practices. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular and effective methods.
L-arginine: a breakthrough anti-aging nutrient?
L-arginine is an amino acid that is the precursor to nitric oxide (this means that your body uses it as a building block in order to produce NO). It’s found most abundantly in meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, nuts, and green vegetables. A variety of l-arginine supplements are also available.
Research has demonstrated that this humble amino acid can provide massive health benefits. By helping to boost nitric oxide levels, l-arginine fights inflammation, boosts the immune system, prevents heart disease, repairs blood vessels, lowers blood pressure, boosts athletic performance, reduces muscle pains and cramps, supports kidney health, helps prevents dementia and boosts cognitive performance, corrects erectile dysfunction and male infertility, and more.
One study, entitled “Anti-aging effects of l-arginine,” even reports that “the demonstrated anti-aging benefits of l-arginine show greater potential than any pharmaceutical or nutraceutical agent ever previously discovered.”
Subsequent studies suggest that acute supplementation with l-arginine more effectively raises nitric oxide levels in those already suffering from heart disease and other pathologies than in healthy individuals.
This certainly doesn’t negate any of its potential benefits, though, both as a preventative and therapeutic agent—after all, nitric oxide levels don’t need to be increased in healthy individuals, only maintained.
Nitric oxide-boosting foods
Diet also plays a critical role in the maintenance of healthy nitric oxide levels (and, of course, the prevention of disease in general).
Keep in mind that, while some of the following foods are naturally high in l-arginine, this is not the only reason they’re able to boost nitric oxide. The story is much more complicated: as far as researchers can tell, endogenous nitric oxide production depends on a number of dietary variables, including the content of nitrates and nitrites, natural anti-inflammatory agents, CoQ10 (a co-factor shown to raise nitric oxide levels), nutrients (such as vitamin C) that boost nitric oxide synthase (the compound that allows the body to convert l-arginine into nitric oxide), antioxidants, polyphenols (which aid in the conversion of dietary nitrites to nitric oxide), l-citrulline (which is converted into l-arginine), and many other co-factors.
Don’t worry if this sounds complicated. Just eat plenty of the following foods, and you’ll be good to go: garlic (high in B vitamins and other co-factors), citrus fruits (high in vitamin C), walnuts (high in l-arginine), beets (packed with nitrites and other vasodilators), arugula (which has the highest known nitrate content), raw cacao (an unparalleled antioxidant), watermelon (an excellent source of l-citrulline), and spinach (a source of CoQ10 and nitrates).
Also consider a high quality Nitric Oxide supplement. We really like this one from humann.com