BIOHACKERS KNOW SOMETHING WE SHOULD ALL UNDERSTAND
There is a whole world of stuff going on in the body that lay folk do not talk much about. Like messenger molecules, which usually only comes up in conversation between biochemists and medical specialists, or occasionally devoted biohackers and athletes. That is such a shame because messenger molecules influence how the body runs stuff, which people really should understand because it affects them so much!
MESSENGER MOLECULES HELP TO RUN THE BODY
While popular music might tell us that the answer to “who rules the world?” is simply “girls”, in the body the task of running stuff is a divided responsibility. We have “upper management” glands like the pituitary and hypothalamus, the “operating system” or nervous system, and the “communications department”, which is staffed by “naturalized foreign workers” (our gut bacteria) and relies a lot on “instant messages” transmitted via messenger molecules like hormones and neurotransmitters. One special messenger molecule is nitric oxide, or NO for short.
NITRIC OXIDE IS AMAZING
NO is involved in transmitting information between cells, helping them to communicate and coordinate with each other. NO functions as a neurotransmitter, vasodilator, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, impacting many areas of the body. Levels of NO may be low in cases of many disease processes, such as Alzheimer’s. The only reason we were not aware of this incredible messenger molecule until a couple of decades ago is because it is actually a gas, and a molecule of NO only lasts in the body for about 5 seconds! In the world of messages, these disappear after being sent like a SnapChat message.
NITRIC OXIDE IS MULTIPURPOSE
Dr. Louis Ignarro, a Professor Emeritus of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology and the medical researcher who won the Nobel prize for the discovery of nitric oxide, is credited with enabling the drug Viagra to come to market, since nitric oxide is the neurotransmitter that causes an erection. However, according to Dr. Ignarro, nitric oxide can help with many more aspects of good health, including memory, learning, the function of digestive enzymes and hormones, as well as benefitting the brain and skin. Studies have shown benefits to athletic performance and endurance as well. A Swiss Army Knife kind of molecule, really.
NITRIC OXIDE OPENS AND RELAXES BLOOD VESSELS
Many of the benefits of NO come from its vasodilation ability – its capacity to open and relax blood vessels and normalize blood pressure. This can be very beneficial since, as functional medicine practitioner Dr. Mark Hyman says; “where blood flows, health goes”. Since NO can improve blood flow, we use flow-dependant vasodilation as the best measure of levels of NO in the body. However, it is incredibly challenging to measure our levels accurately since it disappears as quickly as The Flash. Luckily, we can also measure nitrate and nitrite, the precursors of NO production.
NITRIC OXIDE PRODUCTION DEPENDS ON NITRATE
The body produces nitric oxide using nitrate from food as the substrate. That makes nitrate-rich foods incredibly helpful for boosting NO. Some vegetables rich in this NO precursor include beet roots and beet juice, or Flora’s convenient Red Beet Crystals, or Brussels sprouts and dark leafy greens like kale, but even bacon contains nitrate. Ingesting nitrate rich NO-precursor foods can have many significant measurable effects on our health.
A HEALTHY DIET HELPS CONVERT NITRATE TO NITRIC OXIDE
A good diet is beneficial; eating vegetables and unsaturated fats helps nitric oxide conversion, while getting too many bad fats or refined carbohydrates can get in the way. We use an enzyme called nitric oxide synthase (NOS) to turn nitrate into NO, so anything that increases NOS can be helpful. Vitamin C is one such NOS enhancer. It raises levels of nitric oxide bioavailability and maximizes its absorption in the body. NO production requires certain amino acids, such as arginine, as well. That means getting enough quality protein. Salmon works, as does maximizing plant-based sources of arginine such as seeds (pumpkin, sesame and sunflower are great), spirulina and garlic.
ANTIOXIDANTS INCREASE NO AND MAKE IT LAST LONGER
Flavonoid antioxidants can help boost our levels of nitric oxide too. Just another way that colorful spices, herbs and fruits can help our health! Polyphenols in green tea or dark chocolate can also help. Flavonoid antioxidants can stabilize the NO molecule for longer, giving it a longer effect in the body. That means that ingesting a potent and proven flavonoid antioxidant like Grapeseed Extract can both increase NO production and decrease its breakdown for a double whammy. Berries such as elderberry are another tasty way to get a boost of flavonoid antioxidants.
BEET JUICE WORKS AS A NITRIC OXIDE PRECURSOR FOR ATHLETES
When studies have measured the effects of ingesting nitric oxide-rich foods, they have usually focused on highly trained athletes with healthy balanced diets. These studies use beet juice as the nitric oxide precursor and show time and again that ingesting beet juice prior to exercise positively impacts performance, speed, decision making and endurance. This worked not only in runners, but in everyone from kayakers to cyclists, soccer players to swimmers. There are reports of better sprinting, muscle recovery and aerobic fitness as measured by VO2 Max.
NITRIC OXIDE HELPS EVEN WHEN HEALTH IS NOT IDEAL
It is known that lifestyle choices like not eating a balanced diet, being inactive, breathing through our mouths instead of our noses, and not eating leafy greens can all reduce our ability to make NO. So that begs the question; does benefitting from nitrate-rich beet juice depend on our following a healthy regimen? It turns out that beet juice can provide nitric oxide benefits to laypeople. For example, people with obesity have been shown to benefit from more insulin sensitivity when consuming beets and other nitrate-rich foods. Beet juice works as a NO precursor even if we are not eating like a trained athlete.
NITRATE RICH BEET JUICE IS ANTIAGING FOR THE BRAIN
Just like in the research with athletes, studies have shown that seniors who drink beet juice have better decision-making ability. Furthermore, even in groups of older adults who did not normally exercise and who were taking medication for blood pressure, beet juice was shown to improve cognition and create positive changes in areas the brain involved in motor skills, such as the cortex and insula. Study researcher Dr. W. Jack Rejeski said it caused changes in brain connectivity causing new neural connections like those in younger adults.
BEET JUICE STUDIED FOR SYMPTOMS OF METABOLIC SYNDROME Most aspects of metabolic syndrome are affected by nitric oxide levels. Nitrate is measurable in human blood, but folks with symptoms of metabolic syndrome, like insulin resistance or cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, have lower levels than healthy people. Obesity and prediabetes are characterized by low nitric oxide bioavailability too. The great news for folks with hypertension or insulin resistance linked to low NO is that the identical molecules are found in large concentrations in beets. Some research shows that insulin sensitivity improved with stimulation of NO generating pathways or ingestion of beet juice, potentially decreasing insulin resistance.
WORRIES AND WONDERS
Q: Since NO only lasts for seconds, does the effect of beet juice only last for seconds?
A: Great question. Beet juice’s effects kick in after 45 minutes to an hour and peak about 3-4 hours after ingestion, at least when it comes to effects on blood pressure! The effect of ingesting the juice can be seen 24 hours later. Each individual molecule will only be active for a short time however.
Q: I get bouts of high blood pressure and high blood sugar and want to avoid developing diabetes and hypertension. Is it safe to try Red Beet Crystals made from beet juice or do they have too much sugar?
A: The crystals are naturally sweet, with 4 g of natural sugars per tablespoon. However, beet juice also has liver and digestion supporting effects and may improve insulin sensitivity so they work for most people. If you are unsure, a blood glucose monitor can tell you how you react to different foods.
Q: I thought nitrates in processed red meats are unhealthy – are they the same as nitrates from vegetables like beets?
A: The nitrate molecule is the same but processed meat contains sodium nitrate adding salt in the diet, whereas vegetables tend to be higher in potassium which is better for cardiovascular health. The ‘bad’ part about nitrates is that they can also be converted to nitrosamines. This happens if nitrates are exposed to high heat, as with grilled meats or burnt bacon. Antioxidants, which vegetables, including beets, contain large amounts of, can help prevent conversion to nitrosamines.
We now know that the messenger molecule nitric oxide can function as a neurotransmitter, enhance oxygenation of our tissues, normalize blood pressure, and enhance cognition and motor skills. Consuming nitrate-rich foods like beets, beet juice and crystals made from beet juice can lead to higher levels of nitric oxide in the body. Vitamin C, Grapeseed Extract, berries and dark chocolate have antioxidant effects that enhance and prolong the function of nitric oxide in the body. Beet juice my have other benefits for the liver and insulin sensitivity. Being active, breathing through your nose, and eating a balanced diet with leafy greens can improve your nitric oxide production.
About the Author: Dana Remedios Holistic Nutritionist Dana Green Remedios, RHN, RNCP has a passion for helping others break through their blocks to greater health, wealth, and happiness, working with transformational mind-body tools. The Vancouver-based educator and coach answers your questions in English, French, and Spanish as a Specialist working in the Product Information Department at Flora, and is a regular contributor to the FloraHealthy blog.