Nitric Oxide: From Recreational to Medicinal

Nitric oxide’s medical definition is summarized as: a biological gas controlling a seemingly limitless range of functions in the body, a signaling molecule; a chemical compound with the chemical formula NO; a toxic air pollutant produced by cigarette smoke, automobile engines and power plants.

Nitric oxide has been demonstrated to play a role in a variety of biological processes including neurotransmission, immune defense, the regulation of cell death and cell motility. It is a short lived, free radical (highly reactive) with a half life of only a few seconds that is produced from a group of enzymes known as nitric oxide synthases (NOS) These enzymes break down the amino acid arginine. Arginine changes into nitric oxide, the gas. This gas controls many of the body’s major functions, including blood pressure, any vasodilation (esp. penile erections), swallowing to defecation. It acts as a neurotransmitter between the nerve cells associated with learning, memory, sleeping, feeling pain, and depression. The immune system uses nitric oxide in fighting viral, bacterial and parasitic infections, and tumors.

Breathing, Body Building, and Sex
Interest and research around this versatile gas ramped up when its role in blood flow and hemodilation (widening of the blood channels) was discovered. This affects everything from breathing to body building to sex.

Nitric oxide gas is used along with a ventilator to treat respiratory failure in premature babies. It works by relaxing smooth muscle to widen (dilate) blood vessels, specifically here, in the lungs. It helps the babies breathing to be less labored.

From a body builder’s perspective, nitric oxide can increase muscle size and growth indirectly, as it increases the blood flow, nutrients, and oxygen that goes to the muscle tissue during and after a workout (stress). This process acts as a volumizer for the cells, a hemodilator if you will, causing the blood to surge into the muscle tissue, creating a “pump”. These muscle pumps can be even further expoited, causing bigger gains, if other supplements are a part of the process. More arginine would be beneficial to make more nitric oxide. Creatine is another example of a supplement that can be added to a body builder’s (or anyone trying to gain size and strength) regimen. Once the cell is open to blood flow, the creatine can get inside easier. Nitric oxide also affects the endocrine system; more specifically, the release of gonadotroptin releasing hormone, as well as the release of adrenaline from the adrenal medulla. These control the intensity of the workout, further benefiting size and muscular strength.

Lastly, when connecting nitric oxide to sex, just let me say Viagra or Cialis. Need I say more? These are examples of current prescription products on the market that affect the blood flow to the penis. Adequate blood flow, or engorgement, is what causes the penis to become erect allowing it to perform normal male sexual functions. Without these products and others like them that allow the body to make the needed nitric oxide, or just keep the nitric oxide levels higher once it is made, this could not occur. Ginseng is an herbal supplements that helps dilate blood vessels and improve erectile function, along with libido and increases sensation. A doctor should always monitor combining these treatments. Over treating erectile dysfunction can be dangerous. More is not always better!

In closing, there is still much research to be done to prove the actual effectiveness of nitric oxide supplements. If the supplement contains arginine, which is converted to nitric oxide, then it has potential to be directly related. But, if the supplement has certain nutrients or herbs that make it more likely for the body to make nitric oxide or to keep the nitric oxide levels higher once it is made, then perhaps the supplement should be called a nitric oxide enhancer? Nevertheless, nitric oxide is a molecule the body vitally needs for daily function. A supplement or an enhancement, who cares, as long as it works!

Julie Riggs

Julie Riggs Med. RD LD
Registered and Licensed Dietician

Julie Riggs has been teaching fitness and nutrition skills to every population, from NFL players to the elderly, pre and post-natal moms to professional bodybuilders for her entire career. As a writer and consultant for and as a registered dietician, personal trainer, and mom of three Julie brings real life perspective to the every day person's fitness and nutritional concerns.

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