September 7, 2021

Our Top 5 Favorite Foods for Increasing Nitric Oxide Levels

People are discovering the advantages of nitric oxide and we are HERE for it. I have mentioned this topic in my fantastic Beet smoothie recipe, but today we are focusing a whole blog post on this topic. The recent interest in nitric oxide is driving demand for what people call “nitric oxide-rich foods”.

Nitric oxide is a chemical compound that our body can form on its own (endogenously) or we can get it from dietary sources (exogenously). Foods that can help form nitric oxide in our bodies are actually rich in Nitrates and Nitrites, which then get converted to nitric oxide. In order to boost your nitric oxide levels, you are actually looking for Nitrate/Nitrite-rich foods. These foods are some of my favorites! We are talking about foods like watermelon, dark chocolate, and of course, beets! This article is meant to clarify why there is such an interest in nitric oxide and what are practical ways you can incorporate it into your diet. 

women boxing

What Is Nitric Oxide, and What Does It Do?

Let’s get into it. Nitric oxide is a molecule that carries messages between cells. Nitric oxide is a potent vasodilator (1), meaning it aids in widening blood vessels. You have probably heard your doctor or a healthcare professional talk about the dangers of high blood pressure. This becomes even more important as we age because blood vessels stiffen with aging, and this may exacerbate or cause increased blood pressure (2). An increase in nitric oxide in the blood can lead to certain benefits, including:

  • lowering of blood pressure levels by relaxing the walls of arteries and veins (1)
  • aiding in muscle contraction (3)
  • help maintain a good balance of calcium and glucose in the body (4,5)
  • improving circulation through nitrates (6)
  • helps with erectile dysfunction because it widens your blood vessels allowing more blood flow into these areas (in case this is of specific interest to anyone) (7)

How Does the Body Form Nitric Oxide?

Nitric oxide is a compound that is formed in the body, therefore sources that aid in the formation of nitric oxide are rich in nitrates and nitrites. Dark green leafy vegetables, like kale, are rich sources of nitrate. In the body, nitrate turns into nitrite when digested and then gets converted further down into nitric oxide as needed by the body. The newly formed nitric oxide is then able to keep the arteries and veins dilated, which helps move more oxygen-rich blood through them (1,6).

Fun fact about the formation of nitric oxide — bacteria in your mouth can help convert dietary nitrate into nitrite (8). Once the nitrite compound passes from your mouth into your stomach, the acid present there can further help convert nitrite into nitric oxide. Your body is also smart enough to store nitrate and nitrite in your muscles for when it needs to form nitric oxide later. Have you ever seen how squirrels store nuts in their cute bulging cheeks? Your body does the same in order to have nitric oxide for a rainy day! (maybe not specifically for a rainy day, but you get my point). 

 

Who Could Benefit From a Diet Rich in Nitrates?

A diet rich in nitrate can be beneficial for people who are chronically fatigued, have high blood pressure, or those with cardiovascular conditions. In addition, studies have shown that nitrates reduce both chronic and acute inflammation by targeting specific white blood cells involved in immune function (9). Consuming a diet rich in nitrates can help regulate immune functions like tumor cell resistance and protection against autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis (9).

A diet rich in nitrates can also be incredibly beneficial for athletes (10). The role that nitric oxide plays in muscle contraction can help improve athletic performance as well as aid in the recovery process by regulating calcium and blood pressure (1,4,10). Even if you’re not an athlete, but you are physically active, nitric oxide can still be your best friend to help you get through those cardio workouts. I’ve been doing the Popsugar cardio workouts with the help of Raneir Pollard and Jeanette Jenkins. They are my favorite workouts but I should warn you, my face looks like a wet tomato afterwards and yours might too! You know I drink my beet smoothies those days. 

What foods boost Nitric Oxide levels?

1. Beets –

Beet smoothie, nitric oxide

Yeah, you knew this was going to be number one on my list. The nitrates in beets come from natural soil bacteria that produce nitrogen-containing compounds when breaking down organic matter in the earth – a process called nitrification. Beets have been shown to increase blood flow by up to 28%. (11)(AY-YO!)

2. Garlic –

Garlic, nitric oxide

You thought your garlic bread or garlic-rich sauces were bad for you? Think again! Garlic, unlike some other foods mentioned in this list, works in a different way to boost nitric oxide production. Garlic activates the enzyme involved in the production of nitric oxide within the body (endogenously) with the help of arginine (12).

3. Dark Chocolate –

dark chocolate

Dark chocolate makes the perfect addition to our food list. Dark chocolate contains cocoa beans, which are naturally high in nitrates because they are grown under low oxygen conditions. Studies have shown that people who consume dark chocolate or cocoa-rich foods have increased levels of nitric oxide circulating in the blood (13). Interestingly, dark chocolate contains antioxidants known as catechins that work synergistically with nitric-oxide boosting foods and therefore aid in improving cardiovascular function.

4. Leafy Greens –

Arugula salad, nitric oxide

If you’re my client, you know how much I celebrate when dark leafy greens are incorporated into a meal. Specifically, arugula, kale, beet greens, and spinach are wonderful sources of nitrates (14). No coincidence on dark leafy greens being recommended for people who have high blood pressure!

5. Watermelon –

Watermelon

Do you need another excuse to enjoy watermelon? Do you want a good argument to help teach those people who say that fruit is not healthy for you? Here you go! Watermelon contains an amino acid (L-citrulline) that can be converted into arginine, another amino acid needed for the production of nitric oxide (15).

 

How to Increase Your Intake of Nitrate Foods

A nitrate-rich diet has many benefits such as increasing nitric oxide production, improving blood flow, and lowering blood pressure (16). Nitrates also have been shown to improve endurance in athletes which is why some people choose to take supplements with nitrate before working out (17).

If you are looking for a way to increase nitric oxides naturally, start eating more dark leafy greens! Don’t overcomplicate it. Add spinach or arugula to salads or sandwiches; this is an easy way of adding nitrates naturally to your diet without taking supplements. Nitrates found in dark leafy vegetables like beet greens and kale provide the body with nitrites which are converted into nitric acid within the body.

It is no surprise to us that these dark leafy greens make it to the list of important foods to incorporate in order to promote and boost your health. Also consider your budget and season. You do not have to break the bank to get these nutritious foods in your panty. Foods like garlic, watermelon, and dark chocolate can be an easy way to boost your nitric oxide concentrations. Give beets a try (beet salad, beet smoothie, or beet hummus) as they can help reduce fatigue by delivering oxygen-rich blood throughout the body faster. It does not have to be  complicated. 

 

Wait, I thought Nitrates/Nitrites cause Cancer…?

Ok, let’s get this straight because I can see how this would be confusing. This entire article we have been talking mainly of foods that contain Nitrates, which then are converted into Nitrites in our bodies, which get us the wonderful Nitric Oxide. Nitrates and Nitrites found in vegetables are actually very similar (or identical) structurally to the ones found as preservatives in meats like ham, bacon, hot dogs, and deli meats. So who is the bad guy here? I got one word for you, nitrosamines.

Basically, Nitrates converted into Nitrites within the body are met with the high acidity of stomach acid which creates the perfect environment for nitrosamines to be formed. But here is the catch- in order for this to occur, amines have to be present. Amines are chemicals related to ammonia present in protein (meat based) sources. This occurs particularly when high heat is utilized to cook meats like bacon and sausage. (18)Therefore, meat sources that contain Nitrates/Nitrites as preservatives, are associated with the formation of the carcinogenic compound nitrosamines (19). 

I know I am not the first person to let you know that processed meats are not ultra nutrient-dense. Processed meats have been associated with stomach cancer (20), which may have something to do with nitrosamines being formed. The Nitrates and Nitrites from vegetable sources are NOT the ones people talk about when they reference nitrogen-related-carcinogens. 

Hope that clears it up!

Side Effects of Too Much Nitrate Consumption

As with most things in life, too much of a good thing can become a not-so-good thing. It should be noted that nitrite toxicity or poisoning can occur when someone ingests too much nitrites over a short period of time. The main culprit here are the nitrites, which are formed after nitrate consumption or from nitrite-rich sources. These sources, and likely the reason for toxicity, are items like misuse of nitrite-containing medications, contaminated water from rural well water from exposure to nitrogen-rich fertilizers, among others. Synthetic sources, like supplementation, compared to consuming nitrate-rich foods are usually associated with negative health effects. Since nitric oxide is such a potent vasodilator, consuming too much of it synthetically can lead to vascular collapse.

These supplements can be derived from nitrate (nitroglycerin) or nitrite (amyl nitrite). Keep in mind that consuming nitrates from food sources are likely NOT going to lead to toxicity because of their content to volume ratio. Meaning, you would have to eat a whole lot of beets in order to reach toxicity levels that are otherwise easily reached via a couple of tabs of nitric oxide supplementation. Allergic reactions to nitrates and nitrites are very rare but have been documented. There was a study that observed one individual who had an anaphylactic reaction to nitrates and nitrites, which was associated with consumption of processed foods that contained nitrates/nitrites salts used as preservatives (21).  

Conclusion

We hope that you found the information helpful for understanding what this nitric oxide craze is all about and the benefits of a diet rich in nitrates/nitrites. We hope that articles like this one, help people understand that eating healthy and getting the most out of your foods does not need to be complicated. It can include flavors and foods that you love (looking at you garlic and dark chocolate). If you would like to learn more about how to increase nitric oxides levels, schedule a discovery call with us. We got you!

 

Sources

  1. (Vasodilator) Kapil V, Khambata RS, Robertson A, Caulfield MJ, Ahluwalia A. Dietary nitrate provides sustained blood pressure lowering in hypertensive patients: a randomized, phase 2, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Hypertension. 2015 Feb;65(2):320-7. doi: 10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.114.04675. Epub 2014 Nov 24. PMID: 25421976; PMCID: PMC4288952.
  2. Lee HY, Oh BH. Aging and arterial stiffness. Circ J. 2010 Nov;74(11):2257-62. doi: 10.1253/circj.cj-10-0910. Epub 2010 Oct 15. PMID: 20962429.
  3. Maréchal G, Gailly P. Effects of nitric oxide on the contraction of skeletal muscle. Cell Mol Life Sci. 1999 Jul;55(8-9):1088-102. doi: 10.1007/s000180050359. PMID: 10442090.
  4. Horn TF, Wolf G, Duffy S, Weiss S, Keilhoff G, MacVicar BA. Nitric oxide promotes intracellular calcium release from mitochondria in striatal neurons. FASEB J. 2002 Oct;16(12):1611-22. doi: 10.1096/fj.02-0126com. PMID: 12374784.
  5. Higaki, Y., Hirshman, M., Fujii, N., & Goodyear, L. (2001). Nitric Oxide Increases Glucose Uptake Through a Mechanism That Is Distinct From the Insulin and Contraction Pathways in Rat Skeletal Muscle. Diabetes, 50(2), 241-247. doi: 10.2337/diabetes.50.2.241
  6. Hermann M, Flammer A, Lüscher TF. Nitric oxide in hypertension. J Clin Hypertens (Greenwich). 2006 Dec;8(12 Suppl 4):17-29. doi: 10.1111/j.1524-6175.2006.06032.x. PMID: 17170603.
  7. Toda N, Ayajiki K, Okamura T. Nitric oxide and penile erectile function. Pharmacol Ther. 2005 May;106(2):233-66. doi: 10.1016/j.pharmthera.2004.11.011. Epub 2005 Mar 2. PMID: 15866322.
  8. Smith, A., Benjamin, N., & Wee, D. (1999). The Microbial Generation of Nitric Oxide in the Human Oral Cavity. Microbial Ecology In Health And Disease, 11(1), 23-27. doi: 10.1080/089106099435880
  9. Sharma JN, Al-Omran A, Parvathy SS. Role of nitric oxide in inflammatory diseases. Inflammopharmacology. 2007 Dec;15(6):252-9. doi: 10.1007/s10787-007-0013-x. PMID: 18236016.
  10. Hoon MW, Johnson NA, Chapman PG, Burke LM. The effect of nitrate supplementation on exercise performance in healthy individuals: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2013 Oct;23(5):522-32. doi: 10.1123/ijsnem.23.5.522. Epub 2013 Apr 9. PMID: 23580439.
  11. Kroll JL, Werchan CA, Rosenfield D, Ritz T. Acute ingestion of beetroot juice increases exhaled nitric oxide in healthy individuals. PLoS One. 2018 Jan 25;13(1):e0191030. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0191030. PMID: 29370244; PMCID: PMC5784918.
  12. Das I, Khan NS, Sooranna SR. Potent activation of nitric oxide synthase by garlic: a basis for its therapeutic applications. Curr Med Res Opin. 1995;13(5):257-63. doi: 10.1185/03007999509111550. PMID: 7555034.
  13. Fraga, C. G., Litterio, M. C., Prince, P. D., Calabró, V., Piotrkowski, B., & Galleano, M. (2011). Cocoa flavanols: effects on vascular nitric oxide and blood pressure. Journal of clinical biochemistry and nutrition, 48(1), 63–67. https://doi.org/10.3164/jcbn.11-010FR
  14. Brkić, D., Bošnir, J., Bevardi, M., Bošković, A. G., Miloš, S., Lasić, D., Krivohlavek, A., Racz, A., Ćuić, A. M., & Trstenjak, N. U. (2017). NITRATE IN LEAFY GREEN VEGETABLES AND ESTIMATED INTAKE. African journal of traditional, complementary, and alternative medicines : AJTCAM, 14(3), 31–41. https://doi.org/10.21010/ajtcam.v14i3.4
  15. Bailey SJ, Blackwell JR, Williams E, Vanhatalo A, Wylie LJ, Winyard PG, Jones AM. Two weeks of watermelon juice supplementation improves nitric oxide bioavailability but not endurance exercise performance in humans. Nitric Oxide. 2016 Sep 30;59:10-20. doi: 10.1016/j.niox.2016.06.008. Epub 2016 Jul 1. PMID: 27378312.
  16. Kapil V, Khambata RS, Robertson A, Caulfield MJ, Ahluwalia A. Dietary nitrate provides sustained blood pressure lowering in hypertensive patients: a randomized, phase 2, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Hypertension. 2015 Feb;65(2):320-7. doi: 10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.114.04675. Epub 2014 Nov 24. PMID: 25421976; PMCID: PMC4288952.
  17. Muggeridge DJ, Howe CC, Spendiff O, Pedlar C, James PE, Easton C. A single dose of beetroot juice enhances cycling performance in simulated altitude. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2014 Jan;46(1):143-50. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3182a1dc51. PMID: 23846159.
  18. Scanlan RA. Formation and occurrence of nitrosamines in food. Cancer Res. 1983 May;43(5 Suppl):2435s-2440s. PMID: 6831466.
  19. Honikel KO. The use and control of nitrate and nitrite for the processing of meat products. Meat Sci. 2008 Jan;78(1-2):68-76. doi: 10.1016/j.meatsci.2007.05.030. Epub 2007 Jun 27. PMID: 22062097.
  20. Song, P., Wu, L., & Guan, W. (2015). Dietary Nitrates, Nitrites, and Nitrosamines Intake and the Risk of Gastric Cancer: A Meta-Analysis. Nutrients, 7(12), 9872–9895. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu7125505
  21. Hawkins CA, Katelaris CH. Nitrate anaphylaxis. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2000 Jul;85(1):74-6. doi: 10.1016/S1081-1206(10)62438-6. PMID: 10923609.

 

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I am a Registered Dietitian (RD) based in Chicago, IL. I have worked in various clinical settings including dialysis, ICU, and NICU. I am bilingual and have had the pleasure to work with many Spanish/Spanglish speaking individuals.