What is Nitric Oxide & Its Benefits

by John Staughton (BASc, BFA) last updated -

Nitric oxide plays a critical role in many key organ systems of the body, so supplementation is often required for certain health conditions.

What is Nitric Oxide?

Nitric oxide is a type of molecule, an oxide of nitrogen, that plays a critical role in blood health within the body. Although it is technically classified as a free radical, it is important for blood vessels dilation and the overall health of the circulatory system, among others. When you consume nitrogen-containing foods, namely nitrates and nitrites, they can be converted into nitric oxide (NO) within the gastrointestinal tract. Our body can also generate nitric oxide by combining certain amino acids. Finally, getting enough sunshine can increase the body’s level of nitric oxide. [1]

Doctors have been prescribing the use of nitric oxide, or the consumption of nitrates, for cardiovascular conditions for generations. You can access nitric oxide by taking specific supplements or by altering your diet to include nitric oxide-rich foods.

Basket of citrus fruits with a couple of fruits and a glass of juice alongside on a wooden surface

Tart-sweet flavors of citrus. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Nitric Oxide Foods

Some of the best dietary choices you can make to increase your body’s production of NO include:

These foods are not simply good sources of nitrites and nitrates. In some cases, the polyphenolic compounds in these foods stimulate the conversion of nitrites to nitric oxide, while preventing those new molecules from reverting back. In other cases, they provide high levels of the raw materials (amino acids, e.g. arginine) that the body needs to create this molecule. [2]

Nitric Oxide Benefits

There are a number of benefits to increasing the amount of NO in your body, such as:

  • Preventing heart diseases
  • Increasing stamina for bodybuilding
  • Eliminating fatigue
  • Stimulating the sex drive

Let us discuss them in detail below.

Heart Disease

Perhaps the most important aspect of this molecule is the effect it can have on blood vessels. Nitric oxide is a natural vasodilator, meaning that it will reduce the strain on the cardiovascular system by widening blood vessels and preventing hypertension. It also prevents the accumulation of plaque in the arteries and blood vessels, which can lower your risk of coronary heart disease. [3]


There have been studies showing that low NO levels result in muscle fatigue and general tiredness more rapidly, likely because the oxygenation of your organ and muscle systems is unable to be done efficiently. [4]

Sex Drive

By improving circulation, NO compound can increase sex drive and virility in both genders, although it is more commonly recommended for men. This can prevent symptoms of infertility and replace pharmaceutical solutions for impotence. [5]

Bodybuilding Benefits

While lifting weight or working out, NO acts as a signaling molecule, telling the blood vessels to dilate, thus allowing better blood flow to the muscles, stimulating growth and increasing endurance during an intense workout. [6]

Nitric Oxide Side Effects

While this is a naturally occurring compound, having an excess of nitrites and nitrates in your body can also have some negative side effects, such as gastrointestinal issues, electrolyte imbalances, and blood pressure complications among others.

  • Stomach Problems: In some cases, use of these supplements will increase digestive activity, which can result in bloating, cramping, nausea or an increase in the number of bowel movements.
  • Electrolytes: Since the use of NO can change the general composition of the body’s chemistry, it can also impact the levels of electrolytes, which could impact nervous system function and blood pressure. [7]
  • Blood Pressure: Taking supplements of this molecule (or the amino acid precursors) can result in a dangerous drop in blood pressure, due to the vasodilating effects of nitric oxide once it is created within the body.
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About the Author

John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor, publisher and photographer with English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (USA). He co-founded the literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and now serves as the Content Director for Stain’d Arts, a non-profit based in Denver, Colorado. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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