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Improving Brain Health: The Role of Nitric Oxide
Author: Elizabeth Shirley, RPh CCN, Nitric Oxide and Cognitive Enhancement Whitepaper (2020)
As we age, it’s natural for our cognitive abilities to decline. However, recent research suggests that diminished blood flow to the brain may contribute to this cognitive impairment. The good news is that increasing blood flow in the brain can have a positive impact on cognitive decline associated with aging because while the brain makes up 2% of human bodyweight, it consumes roughly 20% of oxygen supply.
When blood flow to the brain is increased, it allows for better distribution of oxygen, glucose, and nutrients. This improved circulation can potentially slow down the progression of age-related cognitive decline. One key factor in increasing blood flow to the aging brain is the presence of Nitric Oxide (NO).
Nitric Oxide plays a vital role in the brain, particularly in learning and memory processes. It acts as a neurotransmitter, freely crossing cell membranes and diffusing from one neuron to another. Unlike traditional neurotransmitters, NO is released as soon as it’s formed and acts directly on intracellular components. It also exhibits neuroprotective properties against oxidative stress.
The involvement of NO in synaptic plasticity, the ability of the brain to form and strengthen connections between neurons, is well-established. Additionally, NO in the hypothalamus and cerebral cortex is intimately connected to the learning process and memory formation. By increasing NO levels in the brain, we can enhance synaptic and neuronal survival and function, thereby supporting cognitive abilities.
The benefits of NO extend beyond brain health. It plays a crucial role in regulating cardiovascular function and homeostasis, ensuring healthy blood flow throughout the body. It also has implications for sexual function, as it promotes vasodilation and innervates erectile tissue.
Unfortunately, several factors can disrupt NO production in our bodies. Physical inactivity, inflammatory diets lacking nitrate-rich vegetables, and reduced stomach acid can all contribute to decreased NO levels. Environmental factors such as pollution and heavy metals, as well as certain medications like PPIs, NSAIDs, and antibiotics, can also hinder NO production. Additionally, individual genetics and aging itself result in a decline in Nitric Oxide production.
One way to restore NO homeostasis is through the consumption of nitrates. Dietary nitrates serve as an independent source of NO and utilize alternative pathways to generate it, bypassing the NOS enzymes responsible for NO production. This may explain the positive effects of diets like the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) and Mediterranean diets on overall health and longevity.
In conclusion, increasing NO levels can have profound benefits for cognitive function, learning, and memory. It’s important to maintain a lifestyle that supports healthy NO production, including regular physical activity, a balanced diet rich in nitrate-containing vegetables, and minimizing exposure to environmental factors that disrupt NO synthesis. By taking proactive steps to enhance NO levels, we can potentially improve our brain health and overall well-being as we age.
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Dovebe, Jennings, Kraft, Kingbd, Laurient, Rejeski, Burdett, Kim-Shapiro, Miller (2011); doi.org/10.1016/j.
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Milkowski, Garg, Coughlin, Bryan (2009) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.niox.2009.08.004
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- Food sources of nitrates and nitrites: the physiologic context for potential health benefits; Norman G Hord Yaoping Tang Nathan S Bryan (2009); https://doi.rg/10.3945/ajcn.2008.27131