Nitric oxide is a molecule that’s produced naturally by your body, and it’s important for many aspects of your health.
Its most important function is vasodilation, meaning it relaxes the inner muscles of the blood vessels, causing them to widen and increase circulation.
Nitric oxide production is essential for overall health because it allows blood, nutrients and oxygen to travel to every part of your body effectively and efficiently.
In fact, a limited capacity to produce nitric oxide is associated with heart disease, diabetes and erectile dysfunction.
Fortunately, there are many ways to maintain optimal levels of nitric oxide in your body.
Here are the top 5 ways to increase nitric oxide naturally.
Nitrate, a compound found in certain vegetables, is one of the many reasons vegetables are healthy for you.
Vegetables high in nitrate include ():
When these foods are consumed, nitrates are converted into nitric oxide, which confers a wide range of health benefits related to heart health and exercise performance.
In fact, several analyses have shown that eating nitrate-rich vegetables can lower blood pressure as much as some blood pressure medications (, , , ).
Strong evidence favors nitrates, especially from beetroot, for improving exercise performance in athletes (, , 8, ).
Despite the effects that nitrates have on nitric oxide production in your body, some people avoid them for fear they are harmful and contribute to cancer.
This is likely because sodium nitrates are commonly used as a preservative and color fixative in bacon, cold cuts and hot dogs.
Eating these foods is linked to bowel cancer, and nitrates are thought to be the culprit (, ).
Nitrates can form N-nitroso compounds, such as nitrosamine, which are capable of causing cancer.
However, vegetables, which account for more than 80 percent of nitrate intake, contain antioxidants like vitamin C, which help prevent the formation of N-nitroso compounds ().
Summary Vegetables are good sources of nitrates, which help form nitric oxide in your body. Consuming nitrate-rich vegetables improves heart health and exercise performance.
Nitric oxide is an unstable molecule that degrades quickly in the bloodstream, so it must be constantly replenished (14).
One way to increase its stability and limit its breakdown is by consuming antioxidants.
Antioxidants are molecules that neutralize free radicals, which contribute to the short life of nitric oxide ().
These antioxidants are found in all foods but primarily those of plant origin, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains.
A few important antioxidants include:
- Vitamin C: This antioxidant helps your body form connective tissues, including skin, bones, tendons and cartilage. It also produces brain chemicals that help nerve cells communicate ().
- Vitamin E: This antioxidant protects cells from the damaging effects of free radicals, which are thought to contribute to aging and disease. It also plays an important role in keeping the immune system strong (, ).
- Polyphenols: This category of antioxidants is associated with several health benefits, including a reduced risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease ().
- Glutathione: Coined “the mother of all antioxidants,” glutathione is the master antioxidant and detoxifier of every cell in your body.
Several studies have found that ingesting nitric oxide precursors, such as nitrate or citrulline, with antioxidants maintains greater levels of nitric oxide in your body by helping reduce its breakdown (, , , ).
Vegetables that are high in nitrate are also inherently high in antioxidants, which is likely why vegetables are so effective at increasing and maintaining optimal levels of nitric oxide ().
Summary Antioxidants help decrease the breakdown and extend the life of nitric oxide in your body.
Several dietary supplements are marketed as “nitric oxide boosters.”
These supplements don’t contain nitric oxide itself, but they include ingredients that help form nitric oxide in your body.
Two of the most commonly used ingredients are L-arginine and L-citrulline.
L-arginine is a conditionally essential amino acid, meaning it only has to be consumed in the diet under certain conditions, while healthy adults can make all they need ().
It directly produces nitric oxide through a process called the L-arginine-NO pathway.
Several studies support the use of L-arginine for increasing blood flow, but only in certain populations.
In those with high blood pressure, including pregnant women, L-arginine is effective at lowering blood pressure (, 26, , ).
However, evidence on the ability of L-arginine to improve blood flow or exercise performance in healthy individuals remains mixed (, , , ).
L-arginine is generally recognized as safe when taking 20 grams per day, but it may cause digestive symptoms at dosages as low as 10 grams (33, ).
L-citrulline is a dispensable amino acid, meaning your body can make all it needs.
When L-arginine is converted to nitric oxide, L-citrulline is produced as a byproduct.
L-citrulline can then be recycled back to L-arginine and used to increase your body’s natural production of nitric oxide.
In fact, L-citrulline increases levels of L-arginine in your body more than supplementing with L-arginine itself does. This is because a large percentage of L-arginine is broken down before reaching your bloodstream ().
Studies have found L-citrulline to increase blood flow, improve exercise performance and lower blood pressure (, , , ).
L-citrulline is considered relatively safe, and there is a low risk of side effects, even with high doses ().
Summary The amino acids L-arginine and L-citrulline are used to produce nitric oxide in your body. They are available as supplements and have beneficial effects on vascular health and blood flow.
Mouthwash destroys bacteria in your mouth that can contribute to the growth of cavities and other dental diseases.
Unfortunately, mouthwash kills all types of bacteria, including the beneficial ones that help produce nitric oxide.
Special bacteria in the mouth convert nitrate to nitric oxide. In fact, humans cannot produce nitric oxide from nitrate without these bacteria ().
Research has shown that mouthwash kills the oral bacteria needed to produce nitric oxide for up to 12 hours (, ).
This leads to a decrease in nitric oxide production and, in some instances, an increase in blood pressure (, ).
The detrimental effects of mouthwash on nitric oxide production may even contribute to the development of diabetes, which is characterized by malfunctions in insulin production or action.
This is because nitric oxide also regulates insulin, which helps cells utilize the energy obtained from food after it’s digested. Without nitric oxide, insulin cannot work properly.
One study found that people who used mouthwash at least twice daily were 65% more likely to develop diabetes than those who never used mouthwash ().
Therefore, to maintain adequate nitric oxide production, it’s best to use mouthwash sparingly.
Summary Mouthwash kills many types of bacteria in the mouth, including the ones that help produce nitric oxide. This limits your body’s ability to produce nitric oxide, which can lead to high blood pressure and diabetes.
Exercise really does get your blood pumping, largely because it improves endothelial function.
Endothelium refers to the thin layer of cells that line the blood vessels. These cells produce nitric oxide, which keeps blood vessels healthy.
Insufficient nitric oxide production results in endothelium dysfunction, which can contribute to atherosclerosis, high blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease ().
Exercise keeps your endothelial cells and blood vessels healthy by increasing your body’s natural ability to produce nitric oxide.
Several studies have shown that regular physical activity increases endothelial vasodilation in people who have high blood pressure and heart disease, as well as in healthy individuals (48, , ).
Studies have also shown that exercise increases antioxidant activity, which helps inhibit the breakdown of nitric oxide caused by free radicals (, ).
For optimal results, combine aerobic training, such as walking or jogging, with anaerobic training, such as resistance training. The types of exercise you choose should be things you enjoy and can do long term.
Finally, speak with your doctor to determine any limitations you may have in regards to exercise.
Summary Engaging in regular exercise can improve your endothelial function and thus your natural production of nitric oxide.
Nitric oxide is an essential molecule required for overall health. As a vasodilator, nitric oxide signals the blood vessels to relax, allowing them to expand.
This effect allows blood, nutrients, and oxygen to flow freely to every part of your body. But when nitric oxide production is decreased, your health can become compromised.
Therefore, it’s important to achieve and maintain optimal levels of nitric oxide in your body.
A diet high in nitrate-rich vegetables and antioxidants or the use of supplements, such as L-arginine or L-citrulline, are beneficial ways to boost your body’s natural production of nitric oxide. Other proven strategies include limiting mouthwash and exercising regularly.
For optimal nitric oxide production, increase your intake of nitrate-rich vegetables and exercise at least 30 minutes per day.