Nitric oxide has been called “the new hero of human biology.” But it wasn’t always so. For many years, people were only familiar with nitric oxide as a pollutant.
Then, three scientists discovered a plethora of nitric oxide benefits. These findings earned Louis Ignarro, Robert Furchgott, and Ferid Murad a Nobel Peace Prize in 1998.
As nitric oxide’s reputation improved, people began noticing a developing relationship between exercise and nitric oxide. Could the two really be linked together? This question led to more probing and subsequent answers…
What is Nitric Oxide?
You body has approximately 50-100 trillion cells. Nitric oxide is one of the chemical messengers that keep those cells on task. Nitric oxide’s main job is telling blood vessels to dilate. Here’s how it works:
You blood vessels are lined with endothelial cells. When blood pressure increases, the endothelial cells retaliate by releasing nitric oxide. Nitric oxide signals the smooth muscles in blood vessel walls to relax. The blood vessels dilate, pressure is reduced, and blood flow increases.
Nitric oxide is just a simple molecule, but it has powerful effects.
Does Nitric Oxide Enhance Exercise?
New York City bicycle messengers’ job is so rough, they rarely stick around more than a few months. But the messenger nitric oxide has it even worse. Scientists estimate nitric oxide molecules only last a few seconds after being released. So, the only way to keep the benefits coming is to continually increase nitric oxide. Can exercise do this? Absolutely!
When you exercise, your muscles send out a request for more oxygen. The heart responds by pumping more blood to the muscles, which increases blood pressure. And you know what happens next…nitric oxide increases.
In one study, participants exercised while their blood flow was measured. After one minute of exercise, blood flow increased 2 to 3 fold above normal.
Next, the researchers gave participants acetylcholine, which increases nitric oxide. Participants exercised for another 30 minutes. Blood flow increased even more than during the first exercise session.
Finally participants were given a nitric oxide blocker. When they exercised a third time, blood flow decreased to 20-30% lower than it had been during exercise alone.
Another study showed that exercising 3 times a week for 30 minutes increases nitric oxide during the workout. But participants also had higher-than average nitric oxide levels when they weren’t exercising.
Other Ways to Increase Nitric Oxide
Exercise is arguably the best way to increase nitric oxide, but it’s not the only way. These three methods provide some stiff competition for the #1 spot:
1. Use Arginine
Your endothelial cells make nitric oxide using arginine (an amino acid) and nitric oxide synthase (an enzyme). Arginine is made by your body. You can also get it from supplements and foods. These foods are excellent sources of arginine:
- Red Meat
- Whole Grains
2. Take Vitamins C and E
Besides being very important, nitric oxide synthase is fragile and needs protection. Vitamins C and E can provide just that. These powerful antioxidants protect nitric oxide synthase. Once nitric oxide is created, the vitamins protect it, too.
3. Eat Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate is made from cocoa, which is high in polyphenol antioxidants. These polyphenols have been proven to increase nitric oxide. According to seven different studies, people who ate dark chocolate more than twice a week had a 37% lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease.[5}
Does Exercise Increase Nitric Oxide?
Yes! The relationship between exercise and nitric oxide is unquestionably reciprocal. Exercise increases nitric oxide; and nitric oxide enhances exercise. Here are just a few benefits for exercisers:
- Faster recovery: Nitric oxide ensures muscles are receiving nutrients, which helps tissues and fibers repair and recover faster.
- Less fatigue: As you exercise, your body’s oxygen stores decrease. This causes fatigue and lactic acid buildup. Nitric oxide increases your oxygen supply and kicks fatigue and lactic acid to the curb.
- Enhanced endurance: Nitric oxide isn’t just for weight lifters. Endurance athletes also benefit from having more oxygen and stamina and less fatigue.
- Increased energy: Exercise causes your body temperature to rise. When this happens, energy is expended to prevent overheating. Because nitric oxide improves blood flow, your body doesn’t need as much energy to maintain its core temperature. So, you can have more energy for your workout.
- Bigger muscle pumps: Arnold Schwarzenegger once said of muscle pumps, “It is the greatest feeling that I get.” Since muscle pumps are largely due to increased blood flow, having more nitric oxide gives you bigger, longer-lasting pumps.
As if those benefits weren’t enough, nitric oxide just keeps giving:
For many years, scientists have known exercise strengthens the heart and prevents heart attacks. What they haven’t known is the “why.” Then, researchers from Emory University School of Medicine made a groundbreaking discovery.
“Our study provides new evidence that nitric oxide generated during physical exercise is actually stored in the bloodstream in the form of nitrite and nitrosothiols,” says David Lefer, PhD. “These more stable nitric oxide intermediates appear to be critical for the cardioprotection against a subsequent heart attack.”
No wonder nitric oxide was named “Molecue of the Year” in 1992!
Exercise and Nitric Oxide: An Intrinsic Relationship
Until Ignarro, Furchgott, and Murad gave nitric oxide a change, the benefits of this molecule were relatively unknown. Today, nitric oxide is recognized as a vasodilator, a healer, and a protector. In addition, studies verify there is a relationship between exercise and nitric oxide.
When these two are combined–and they always are–get ready for a surge of benefits!
-  “The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1998.” Nobelprize.org.
-  Dyke, CK, DN Proctor, et al. “Role of nitric oxide in exercise hyperaemia during prolonged rhythmic handgripping in humans.” Journal of Physiology. 488. (1995): 259-65.
-  Lewis, Tamara V., Anthony M. Dart, et al. “Exercise Training Increases Basal Nitric Oxide Production From the Forearm in Hypercholesterolemic Patients.” Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology. 19. (1999).
-  Fisher, N, M. Hughes, et al. “Flavonol-rich cocoa induces nitric-oxide dependent vasodilation in healthy humans.” Journal of Hypertension. 21.12 (2003): 2281-6.
-  Buitrago-Lopez, Adriana, Jean Sanderson, et al. “Chocolate consumption and cardiometabolic disorders: systematic review and meta-analysis.” British Medical Journal. 343. (2011).
-  Lefer, DJ, JW Calvert, et al. “Exercise protects against myocardial ischemia-reperfusion injury via stimulation of ?(3)-adrenergic receptors and increased nitric oxide signaling: role of nitrite and nitrosothiols.” Circulation Research. 108.12 (2011): 1448-58.
-  Naseem, KM. “The role of nitric oxide in cardiovascular diseases.” Molecular Aspects of Medicine. 26.1-2 (2005).
-  Stanislavov, R, and V. Nikolova. “Treatment of erectile dysfunction with pycnogenol and L-arginine.” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. 29.3 (2003): 207-13.