Nitric Oxide Benefits and Side Effects

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Food and Health, Nutritiion, Supplements and Health

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Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Nitric oxide has had a meteoric rise from obscurity to fame in just a few short years. It’s an amazing story. After all, nitric oxide is a colorless, odorless gas. Who could have known it was destined for greatness? In this article, we will discuss nitric oxide benefits and side effects.

Its rise to fame started in the 1980’s when scientists from several universities discovered that nitric oxide was an important regulator of numerous physiological processes. Just a few years later in 1992 Science magazine named it “Molecule of the Year”, a very prestigious honor. And, in 1998 three of its co-discoverers received the Nobel Prize for their ground-breaking research.

The Benefits of Nitric Oxide

Proven Benefits

Perhaps the most important benefit of nitric oxide is its role in maintaining the health of the endothelial cells that form the inner lining of our blood vessels. Nitric oxide reduces:

  • Platelet aggregation
  • Damage & inflammation of the endothelial cells
  • Oxidation of LDL cholesterol
  • Growth of smooth muscle cells.

This is important because these are the very physiological processes that, if left unchecked, can lead to atherosclerosis and disease of the cardiovascular system (Davignon and Ganz, Circulation, 109: 1127-1132, 2004; Tousoulis et al, Current Vascular Pharmacology, 10: 4-18, 2012).

cardiovascular-system

However, the effect of nitric oxide that has gotten the most attention is its ability to relax the smooth muscle cells that surround our blood vessels. That leads to increased blood flow, which in turn decreases blood pressure, relieves angina, and even prevents erectile dysfunction (Davignon and Ganz, Circulation, 109: 1127-1132, 2004; Tousoulis et al, Current Vascular Pharmacology, 10: 4-18, 2012).

Possible Benefits

Many people with atherosclerosis, diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure) have low nitric oxide levels. It’s not known whether this is a cause or a result of these diseases, but low nitric oxide levels certainly could contribute to the progression and health consequences of all three diseases. We already know that increasing nitric oxide levels can reduce high blood pressure. It is not yet known whether increasing nitric oxide levels could reduce or reverse heart disease and the effects of diabetes, but this is an area of active research.

Nitric oxide is a neurotransmitter and is thought to play a critical role in memory and learning. It also plays a critical role in immune function. In addition, it enhances the metabolic activity of mitochondria, which could enhance cellular metabolism. The physiological significance of these observations is unknown, but this is another area of active research

Finally, because nitric oxide stimulates blood flow, which should increase oxygen and nutrient delivery to active muscle, it has been suggested that nitric oxide supplements would improve sports performance. The results of clinical studies to test this hypothesis have been mixed. The latest research suggests that nitric oxide supplements may enhance performance in untrained or moderately trained subjects, but not in highly trained subjects (Bescoe et al, Sports Medicine, 42: 99-117, 2012). At last, a sports supplement for the common man!

Drugs That Affect Nitric Oxide Levels

Because nitric oxide has such powerful physiological effects, the pharmaceutical industry has been busy creating drugs that either increase nitric oxide levels or increase the biological effectiveness of nitric oxide. For example, these include drugs to treat angina, hypertension, pulmonary hypertension and erectile dysfunction.

These drugs are generally effective, but have some drawbacks, namely:

  • They have numerous side effects. For example, just listen to the Viagra or Cialis ads on TV.
  • Some of them lose their biological effectiveness over time, especially the angina medications.

Natural Approaches for Increasing Nitric Oxide Levels

nitratesThere are two natural pathways for generating nitric oxide in the body.

1)     The first pathway is an enzymatic process that oxidizes a nitrogen atom in the amino acid arginine to nitric oxide.

2)     The second pathway is a non-enzymatic process in which naturally occurring nitrates and nitrites are reduced to nitric oxide either by bacteria in the mouth and intestine, or by naturally occurring antioxidants.

Arginine is found in proteins. The best protein sources of arginine are red meat, soy, crustaceans (crab, shrimp & lobster), nuts, spinach and lentils. In addition, you can find arginine supplements and arginine-enriched protein supplements.

The best natural sources of nitrates and nitrites are vegetables, especially spinach, beet root and arugula followed by green leafy vegetable and root vegetables in general. Vegetables provide about 80% of the nitrates and nitrites in the American diet.

Nitrates and nitrites do not appear to have the side effects of the nitic oxide producing drugs. This is probably because their effects on raising nitric oxide levels are slower and more modest, and they do not accumulate in the body.

Interestingly, conventionally grown vegetables are higher in nitrates than organically grown vegetables because of the use of inorganic, nitrate-containing fertilizers. However, that doesn’t mean that I recommend conventionally grown produce over organic produce. In last week’s “Health Tips From the Professor”, I reported that conventionally grown produce is 4-fold higher in pesticides.

Red meat and processed meats are also a minor source of nitrates and nitrites in the American diet because nitrates and nitrites are used as preservatives and coloring agents in those meats.

Are Nitrates and Nitrites Beneficial?

Until recently most of the focus has been on arginine as a natural source of nitric oxide. However, there are several lines of evidence suggesting that dietary sources of nitrates and nitrates can also provide the health benefits expected from nitric oxide.

For example, it has long been known that the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet is as effective as medications for lowering moderately elevated blood pressure. The DASH diet recommends 4-5 servings of vegetables per day, and recent studies have suggested that the nitrates found in those vegetables may play an important role in the blood pressure lowering effect of the DASH diet (Hord et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 90: 1-10, 2009; Lin et al, Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, p 472396, 2012).

In addition, a recent meta-analysis of 16 clinical trials concluded that inorganic nitrate and beet root juice supplements lower blood pressure by modest amounts in healthy individuals (Siervo et al, Journal of Nutrition, 143: 818-826, 2013).

Are Nitrates and Nitrites Harmful?

There are two potential concerns around increasing dietary nitrate and nitrite intake.

1)     The one you may have heard the most about is the concern that dietary nitrates and nitrites might increase cancer risk. That turns out to be mainly associated with the nitrates and nitrites added to meats because, in the intestine, nitrites can combine with amino acids to form cancer causing nitrosamines.

That does not appear to be a problem with vegetables because vitamin C and other naturally occurring antioxidants in the vegetables prevent nitrosamine formation. There is no cancer risk in consuming more vegetables.

arginine

2)     The other concern is potential drug-nutrient interactions, especially drugs which also increase nitric oxide levels such as drugs for angina, hypertension, pulmonary hypertension and erectile dysfunction. This is because the combination of nitric oxide from nitrates in the diet and from the drugs has the potential to cause dangerously low blood pressure.

As a general precaution, if you are taking any medications I suggest consulting your doctor or pharmacist before increasing your dietary intake of nitrates and nitrites.

 

The Bottom Line

1)     Nitric oxide plays an important role in keeping the endothelial lining of your blood vessels healthy, which is thought to reduce the risk of atherosclerosis.

2)    Nitric oxide also relaxes the smooth muscle cells that surround our blood vessels. That increases blood flow and decreases blood pressure. The increased blood flow also decreases angina and erectile dysfunction.

3)    Nitric oxide also may increase blood flow to active muscle cells. This has been reported to increase exercise efficiency and sports performance. This effect of nitric oxide appears to primarily affect untrained and moderately trained athletes, not highly trained athletes.

4)    It has been suggested that nitric oxide may be useful for memory and learning, immune function, mitochondrial function and may reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Research is currently going on to evaluate these hypotheses.

5)     There are two natural sources of nitric oxide:

  • The amino acid arginine from proteins and supplements
  • Nitrates and nitrites from vegetables such as spinach, beet root and arugula and from supplements.

6)     Foods (primarily vegetables) and supplements providing dietary nitrates have been shown to modestly lower blood pressure in healthy individuals. They are likely to provide the other benefits associated with nitric oxide as well, without the side effects associated with nitric oxide enhancing medications.

7)     Nitrates and nitrites from vegetables are unlikely to increase cancer risk because vitamin C and other antioxidants from the vegetables prevent the conversion of nitrates and nitrites to nitrosamines.

8)     If you are taking any medications, especially medications for angina, high blood pressure or erectile dysfunction, consult with your doctor or pharmacist before increasing your dietary nitrate intake.

9)     High blood pressure is a silent killer. You should never substitute dietary nitrates for blood pressure medication. Always consult with your physician first. They may be willing to work with you to lower the amount of medication if appropriate. Finally, even if you don’t have high blood pressure, you should monitor your blood pressure on a regular basis. High blood pressure can sneak up on you without you realizing it.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (2)

  • Josephine Dye

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    thanks for all you are teaching us about our health

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  • Club Pump

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    Appreciation to my father who shared with me about this weblog,
    this blog is in fact remarkable.

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Latest Article

Should We Use Supplements For Cardiovascular Health?

Posted July 10, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Are You Just Wasting Your Money On Supplements?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

supplements for cardiovascular health wast moneyYou’ve seen the headlines. “Recent Study Finds Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.”  You are being told that supplements are of no benefit to you. They are a waste of money. You should follow a healthy diet instead. Is all of this true?

If I were like most bloggers, I would give you a simple yes or no answer that would be only partially correct. Instead, I am going to put the study behind these headlines into perspective. I am going to give you a deeper understanding of supplementation, so you can make better choices for your health.

 Should we use supplements for cardiovascular health?

In today’s article I will give you a brief overview of the subject. Here are the topics I will cover today:

  • Is this fake news?
  • Did the study ask the right questions?
  • Is this a question of “Garbage In – Garbage Out?
  • Reducing Heart Disease Risk. What you need to know.

All these topics are covered in much more detail (with references) in my book “Slaying The Supplement Myths”, which will be published this fall.

 

How Was This Study Done?

supplements for cardiovascular healthThis study (D.J.A. Jenkins et al, Journal of the American College Of Cardiology, 71: 2540-2584, 2018 ) was a meta-analysis. Simply put, that means the authors combined the results of many previous studies into a single database to increase the statistical power of their conclusions. This study included 127 randomized control trials published between 2012 and December 2017. These were all studies that included supplementation and looked at cardiovascular end points, cancer end points or overall mortality.

Before looking at the results, it is instructive to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the study. Rather than giving you my interpretation, let me summarize what the authors said about strengths and weaknesses of their own study.

The strengths are obvious. Randomized control trials are considered the gold standard of evidence-based medicine, but they have their weaknesses. Here is what the authors said about the limitations of their study:

  • “Randomized control trials are of shorter duration, whereas longer duration studies might be required to fully capture chronic disease risk.”
  • “Dose-response data were not usually available [from the randomized control studies included in their analysis]. However, larger studies would allow the effect of dose to be assessed.”

There are some other limitations of this study, which I will point out below.

Is This Fake News?

supplements for cardiovascular health fake newsWhen I talk about “fake news” I am referring to the headlines, not to the study behind the headlines. The headlines were definitive: “Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.” However, when you read the study the reality is quite different:

  • In contrast to the negative headlines, the study reported:
    • Folic acid supplementation decreased stroke risk by 20% and overall heart disease risk by 17%.
    • B complex supplements containing folic acid, B6, and B12 decreased stroke risk by 10%.
    • That’s a big deal, but somehow the headlines forgot to mention it.
  • The supplements that had no significant effect on heart disease risk (multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C) were ones that would not be expected to lower heart disease risk. There was little evidence from previous studies of decreased risk. Furthermore, there is no plausible mechanism for supposing they might decrease heart disease risk.
  • The study did not include vitamin E or omega-3 supplements, which are the ones most likely to prove effective in decreasing heart disease risk when the studies are done properly (see below).

Did The Study Ask The Right Question?

Most of the studies included in this meta-analysis were asking whether a supplement decreased heart disease risk or mortality for everyone. Simply put, the studies started with a group of generally healthy Americans and asked whether supplementation had a significant effect on disease risk for everyone in that population.

That is the wrong question. We should not expect supplementation to benefit everyone equally. Instead, we should be asking who is most likely to benefit from supplementation and design our clinical studies to test whether those people benefit from supplementation.

supplements for cardiovascular health diagramI have created the graphic on the right as a guide to help answer the question of “Who is most likely to benefit from supplementation?”. Let me summarize each of the points using folic acid as the example.

 

Poor Diet: It only makes sense that those people who are deficient in folate from foods are the most likely to benefit from folic acid supplementation. Think about it for a minute. Would you really expect people who are already getting plenty of folate from their diet to obtain additional benefits from folic acid supplementation?

The NIH estimates that around 20% of US women of childbearing age are deficient in folic acid. For other segments of our population, dietary folate insufficiency ranges from 5-10%. Yet, most studies of folic acid supplementation lump everyone together – even though 80-95% of the US population is already getting enough folate through foods, food fortification, and supplementation. It is no wonder most studies fail to find a beneficial effect of folic acid supplementation.

The authors of the meta-analysis I discussed above said that the beneficial effects of folic acid they saw might have been influenced by a very large Chinese study, because a much higher percentage of Chinese are deficient in folic acid. They went on to say that the Chinese study needed to be repeated in this country.

In fact, the US study has already been done. A large study called “The Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation (HOPE)” study reported that folic acid supplementation did not reduce heart disease risk in the whole population. However, when the study focused on the subgroup of subjects who were folate-deficient at the beginning of the study, folic acid supplementation significantly decreased their risk of heart attack and cardiovascular death.  This would seem to suggest using supplements for cardiovascular health is a good idea.

Increased Need: There are many factors that increase the need for certain nutrients. However, for the sake of simplicity, let’s only focus on medications. Medications that interfere with folic acid metabolism include anticonvulsants, metformin (used to treat diabetes), methotrexate and sulfasalazine (used to treat severe inflammation), birth control pills, and some diuretics. Use of these medications is not a concern when the diet is adequate. However, when you combine medication use with a folate-deficient diet, health risks are increased and supplementation with folic acid is more likely to be beneficial.

Genetic Predisposition: The best known genetic defect affecting folic acid metabolism is MTHFR. MTHFR deficiency does not mean you have a specific need for methylfolate. However, it does increase your need for folic acid. Again, this is not a concern when the diet is adequate. However, when you combine MTHFR deficiency with a folate-deficient diet, health risks are increased and supplementation with folic acid is more likely to be beneficial. I cover this topic in great detail in my upcoming book, “Slaying The Supplement Myths”. In the meantime, you might wish to view my video, “The Truth About Methyl Folate.”

Diseases: An underlying disease or predisposition to disease often increases the need for one or more nutrients that help reduce disease risk. The best examples of this are two major studies on the effect of vitamin E on heart disease risk in women. Both studies found no effect of vitamin E on heart disease risk in the whole population. However, one study reported that vitamin E reduced heart disease risk in the subgroup of women who were post-menopausal (when the risk of heart disease skyrockets). The other study found that vitamin E reduced heart attack risk in the subgroup of women who had pre-existing heart disease at the beginning of the study.

Finally, if you look at the diagram closely, you will notice a red circle in the middle. When two or three of these factors overlap, that is the “sweet spot” where supplementation is almost certain to make a difference and it may be a good idea to use supplements for cardiovascular health.

Is This A Question Of “Garbage In, Garbage Out”?

supplements for cardiovascular health garbage in outUnfortunately, most clinical studies focus on the “Does everyone benefit from supplementation question?” rather than the “Who benefits from supplementation?” question.

In addition, most clinical studies of supplementation are based on the drug model. They are studying supplementation with a single vitamin or mineral, as if it were a drug. That’s unfortunate, because vitamins and minerals work together synergistically. What we need are more studies of holistic supplementation approaches.

Until these two things change, most supplement studies are doomed to failure. They are doomed to give negative results. In addition, meta-analyses based on these faulty supplement studies will fall victim to what computer programmers refer to as “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. If the data going into the analysis is faulty, the data coming out of the study will be equally faulty. It won’t be worth the paper it is written on. If you are looking for personal guidance on supplementation, this study falls into that category.

 

Should We Use Supplements For Cardiovascular Health?

 

If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for everyone, this meta-analysis is clear. Folic acid may decrease the risk of stroke and heart disease. A B complex supplement may decrease the risk of stroke. All the other supplements they included in their analysis did not decrease heart disease risk, but the analysis did not include vitamin E and/or omega-3s.

However, if you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for you, this study provides no guidance. It did not ask the right questions.

I would be remiss, however, if I failed to point out that we know healthy diets can decrease heart disease risk. In the words of the authors: “The recent science-based report of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, also concerned with [heart disease] risk reduction, recommended 3 dietary patterns: 1) a healthy American diet low in saturated fat, trans fat, and meat, but high in fruits and vegetables; 2) a Mediterranean diet; and 3) a vegetarian diet. These diets, with their accompanying recommendations, continue the move towards more plant-based diets…” I cover the effect of diet on heart disease risk in detail in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”.

 

The Bottom Line

 

You have probably seen the recent headlines proclaiming: “Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.” The study behind the headlines was a meta-analysis of 127 randomized control trials looking at the effect of supplementation on heart disease risk and mortality.

  • The headlines qualify as “fake news” because:
    • The study found that folic acid decreased stroke and heart disease risk, and B vitamins decreased stroke risk. Somehow the headlines forgot to mention that.
    • The study found that multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C had no effect on heart disease risk. These are nutrients that were unlikely to decrease heart disease risk to begin with.
    • The study did not include vitamin E and omega-3s. These are nutrients that are likely to decrease heart disease risk when the studies are done properly.
  • The authors of the study stated that a major weakness of their study was that that randomized control studies included in their analysis were short term, whereas longer duration studies might be required to fully capture chronic disease risk.
  • The study behind the headlines is of little use for you as an individual because it asked the wrong question.
  • Most clinical studies focus on the “Does everyone benefit from supplementation question?” That is the wrong question. Instead we need more clinical studies focused on the “Who benefits from supplementation?” question. I discuss that question in more detail in the article above.
  • In addition, most clinical studies of supplementation are based on the drug model. They are studying supplementation with a single vitamin or mineral, as if it were a drug. That’s unfortunate, because vitamins and minerals work together synergistically. What we need are more studies of holistic supplementation approaches.
  • Until these two things change, most supplement studies are doomed to failure. They are doomed to give negative results. In addition, meta-analyses based on these faulty supplement studies will fall victim to what computer programmers refer to as “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. If the data going into the analysis is faulty, the data coming out of the study will be equally faulty. It won’t be worth the paper it is written on. If you are looking for personal guidance on supplementation, this study falls into that category.
  • If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for everyone, this study is clear. Folic acid may decrease the risk of stroke and heart disease. A B-complex supplement may decrease the risk of stroke. All the other supplements they included in their analysis did not decrease heart disease risk, but they did not include vitamin E and/or omega-3s in their analysis.
  • If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for you, this study provides no guidance. It did not ask the right questions.
  • However, we do know that healthy, plant-based diets can decrease heart disease risk. I cover heart healthy diets in detail in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths.”

 

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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