“Sunshine on My Shoulders always makes me happy,” sang John Denver in 1971.
It’s true, sunshine does make us happy and has such a positive effect on our mental and emotional health. But what about our physical health? UV Rays are recognized as a major risk factor for skin cancer. However, in the same way overexposure to sunlight can be bad for a person’s health, a lack of sunlight can also be just as detrimental. Most of the sun’s benefits come from the boost in vitamin D. But sunlight’s benefits extend far beyond vitamin D. When sunlight touches your skin something else also happens; nitric oxide is released into your bloodstream. Why is this important? Because nitric oxide is crucial for maintaining healthy blood pressure, therefore reducing the chances of a heart attack or stroke. Research suggests that nitric oxide is a major factor in maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system. When you have inadequate nitric oxide, your risk for coronary artery disease increases.
But what exactly is nitric oxide?
Nitric oxide (NO) is a gaseous molecule found in the body that functions as a signal in your brain and immune system. It signals the smooth muscle cells in your blood vessels to relax so that your vessels dilate and your blood flows more freely, which helps your arteries stay free of plaque. This makes NO extraordinarily good at preventing cardiovascular disease. Also, if your blood is flowing freely, then nearly every physiological process will function better, such as:
- Improved brain function due to the fact that it greatly enhances blood flow to the brain and functions as a secondary neurotransmitter between nerve cells.
- Assistance to the immune system at fighting off bacteria and defending against tumors.
- Improvement of the effectiveness of your workouts. Your muscles will receive more oxygen and nutrients when your veins are dilated and circulation is enhanced. For the same reason, NO also shortens recovery time.
- Erectile Function. Nitric oxide is one of the main ‘ingredients’ behind erections, and without the molecule, erectile dysfunction will result One cause of impotence is unhealthy and aged arteries that feed blood to the sexual organs. Enhanced nitric oxide causes more blood flow and better erections. (Have I gotten your attention yet?)
Simply put, nitric oxide makes the body run more smoothly. However, as we age, our blood vessels and nitric oxide system become less efficient due to free radical damage, inactivity, and poor diet, causing our veins and arteries to deteriorate. So besides enjoying some time in the sun, how can we ensure that we have sufficient amounts of this important molecule in our body?
Increasing Nitric Oxide in our Bodies
The most common way to increase nitric oxide is through exercise. When you exercise, your muscles need more oxygen which is supplied by the blood. As the heart pumps with more pressure to supply the muscles with blood, the lining in your arteries releases nitric oxide into the blood, which relaxes and widens the vessel wall, allowing for more blood to pass through.
Another way to increase nitric oxide is through diet, most notably by consuming the amino acids L-arginine and L-citrulline. Your blood vessels require the amino acid L-arginine for the synthesis of nitric oxide, since L-arginine is its precursor in your body. Arginine, which can be found in nuts, fruits, meats and dairy, directly creates nitric oxide and citrulline inside the cell. Citrulline (prevalent in watermelon) is then recycled back into arginine, making even more nitric oxide.
You can also increase your nitric oxide levels with natural supplements. L-Arginine and L-Citrulline bundled together form a single powerful supplement, the proverbial one-two punch. Supplemental arginine helps the body produce more nitric oxide while supplemental citrulline assists in nitric oxide production by boosting blood levels of arginine. There are certain conditions under which you should not take L-Arginine and L-Citurlline. Always consult with your doctor before starting to take any new supplements.
One last thing. There is research that shows that laughter increases nitric oxide levels as well. So maybe it’s true, laughter really is the best medicine.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease.
Bonnie Peterson, owner of Personal Journey Wellness has been a Certified Health Coach for 4 years. She received her training at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, the world’s largest nutrition school.