Nitric oxide (NO) is truly a miracle molecule. This gaseous molecule is produced by the body and signals for blood vessels to relax and expand. However, the production of nitric oxide decreases as we age. This decrease in NO production gives rise to endothelial dysfunction. This in turn leads to other health problems such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke, and more. If we want to reduce this cardiovascular risk, we have to keep our nitric oxide production as high as possible.

I am aware not everyone reading this is an expert in cardiovascular health, so I will try to break down what you need to know about the endothelium in order to help you understand just how important nitric oxide is for your overall health and wellness.


What is the endothelium and what does it have to do with cardiovascular risk?

Okay, let’s start with the basics. The endothelium is the inner lining of your blood vessels. The endothelium plays an essential role in regulating blood flow. It is here that nitric oxide comes into play. NO is produced in the lining muscles. When this happens, NO begins its most important role: vasodilation. This means NO signals for the blood vessels to widen and expand. This dilating of the blood vessels allows greater blood flow to occur. This blood flow affects the health of muscles, the brain, and the heart. As we age, this production decreases. By the time you are 40, you will only be producing half of the NO you could produce at 25.

This decrease in NO production leads to endothelial dysfunction. This means the blood vessels are not able to dilate and constrict optimally. As a result, blood flow becomes less efficient. This inability to dilate and constrict properly is known as arterial stiffness. Arterial stiffness contributes to hypertension, plaque buildup in the arteries, inflammation, and other factors that increase cardiovascular risk. The lack of NO production can also lead to blood clotting. These blood clots can block arteries just like plaque and lead to an increased risk of stroke and heart attacks.


Endothelial dysfunction: Fighting Back

Roughly one-third of people suffer from some form of endothelial dysfunction, even if they are unaware. Furthermore, lifestyle choices and genetic predispositions can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease as well. People who smoke, the elderly, diabetics, and those with high cholesterol and high blood pressure are all at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

However, what we can do to combat this cardiovascular risk from endothelial dysfunction is increase our nitric oxide production. NO is notorious for being used up quickly in the body, so we must give the body a constant supply of ingredients so it can continue to produce NO.


Nitric oxide precursors to reduce cardiovascular risk

Any NO boosting food or supplement out there is not comprised of NO itself. Since NO is a gas, we must ingest building blocks the body can convert into nitric oxide. Also, since NO has such a short half-life, we must be vigilant in NO precursor consumption since it is metabolized so rapidly. Blood vessels need to make NO to function properly, and they do so using three ingredients: L-arginine, L-citrulline, and dietary nitrates.


How L-arginine helps

One of the three precursor compounds the body uses to produce nitric oxide is the amino acid L-arginine. L-arginine is used to build protein and stimulates the release of insulin in the body. The body uses L-arginine to produce nitric oxide when it is consumed. You can find L-arginine in foods such as red meat, dairy, eggs, lentils, and chickpeas. Your body does naturally produce some L-arginine on its own, but the amount needed to produce nitric oxide is best gotten from your diet or a supplement.

L-arginine has been well-studied and shown to have potential benefits such as:


  • reducing chest pain
  • speeding up wound healing
  • building muscle
  • supporting heart health
  • improving male fertility
  • lowering blood pressure
  • reducing digestive system inflammation
  • treating arterial disease
  • improving exercise performance

These are not all the benefits that L-arginine provides, but it’s enough for you to see why most NO supplements will include a heavy portion of it in the ingredients. The biggest benefit of L-arginine is it supports blood flow. Studies show L-arginine improves blood flow when supplemented, reducing cardiovascular risk.


How L-citrulline helps

This amino acid is nonessential, meaning we do produce it in our body, but usually in varying amounts. Unlike other amino acids, L-citrulline is not used to build protein. The biggest role L-citrulline has is in the urea cycle. L-citrulline helps rid the body of harmful compounds such as ammonia. L-citrulline can be found in watermelon, squash, and cucumbers.

The body uses L-citrulline to produce L-arginine, which in turn is converted into nitric oxide. Because of this, L-citrulline has health benefits such as:


  • promotes vasodilation
  • lowers blood pressure
  • increases GH hormone post-workout
  • promotes sexual health in men

L-citrulline works to improve blood flow alongside L-arginine so many nitric oxide boosters contain various quantities of both amino acids. The ratio is different in most of these supplements, but the best ratio of L-arginine to L-citrulline for optimal nitric oxide absorption and production is 2:1. This ratio will help you reduce cardiovascular risk.


How nitrates help

For those who might be confused, let’s clarify the stance that should be taken on nitrates. Nitrates found in processed meats are usually sodium nitrate, which is an additive used to preserve the food. These kinds of nitrates are bad for you. However, the nitrates found in leafy greens and root plants are good for you. So it all comes down to the source of the nitrates. With that out of the way, we can continue.

Nitrates are naturally occurring compounds found in soil. Because of this, nitrates become infused into the plants we eat. If you want to boost your nitric oxide production via diet, nitrates are the most abundant NO precursor available. You can find nitrates in foods such as kale, arugula, beets, lettuce, mustard greens, and more.

Some of the benefits of dietary nitrates include:


  • help kill bacteria
  • reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease
  • reduces the risk of heart disease
  • lowers the risk of stroke
  • lowers the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s
  • can improve exercise endurance

Just a handful of raw greens a day can drastically boost your nitric oxide production potential, so should not be ignored as a contributor to reducing cardiovascular risk.


Other ways to reduce cardiovascular risk

Boosting your NO production via diet or supplements is just one of the many things you can do to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Let’s Look at some other ways you can reduce the risk. Some of these will also boost NO production, and some of these are just lifestyle changes to make you healthier overall.


Lifestyle Changes

Some of the lifestyle changes you can implement to reduce cardiovascular risk include:


Not Smoking.

Not using tobacco in any form is one of the best things you can do for your overall health. Tobacco use is a hard habit to break once you start. With this in mind, the best option is to not start at all. Tobacco use can make you sick, make you slower, and decrease your lifespan. If you are unable to quit, simply reducing the amount you smoke can do wonders for your long-term health. The nicotine in tobacco products is incredibly addictive, so quitting is difficult. However, reducing excessive smoking is linked to a reduced risk of heart disease.


Stay at a healthy weight.

Carrying too many extra pounds is detrimental to your long-term health. Being overweight puts you at an increased risk of developing diabetes and becoming obese. Furthermore, being overweight puts you at an increased risk of heart disease, hypertension, plaque buildup, and more. Keep your diet and lifestyle choices in check to avoid becoming overweight. Finding a healthy weight range relative to your height is a great start. The most commonly used indicator of weight risk is BMI.


Exercise regularly.

This lifestyle change can do much to offset the weight risk listed above. Keeping up a regular exercise routine is crucial for offsetting cardiovascular risk. Remember when we said nitric oxide production decreases as we get older? Well, activity level also tends to decrease as we get older. Exercise happens to be able to spark NO production. So if you want to both keep off weight gain and improve nitric oxide production, exercise more. If you don’t know where to begin, try a brisk 20-30 minute walk 5-6 days a week as a starting point. A sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of disease, so combat it by being more active.

There are other habits you can do that boost nitric oxide and reduce cardiovascular risk, but these are a great starting point for most people.


The Takeaway

Getting older is something none of us can stop. It is unfortunate that with age comes an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, arterial problems, endothelial dysfunction, and other health complications. Because of these risks, it is our responsibility to do all we can to fight these risks. An active lifestyle, making good habit choices, and keeping nitric oxide production as high as possible are all paramount for offsetting these risks as we age. Do your heart and arteries a favor and bookmark this article for future use so you never forget what to do to stay healthy as you get older.