In the world of bodybuilding, the word NO has taken on a new meaning. NO isn’t the negative response you hear from your wife on Friday night, but instead is an abbreviation for an intrinsic signaling molecule found throughout the body called nitric oxide. NO is a molecule that plays an essential role in many physiological processes, and discovery of its functions won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1998.
NO is a very important regulator of vasodilation, meaning that it acts to increase blood flow by opening up blood vessels. Thus, NO allows for a greater delivery of oxygen and nutrients to exercising muscle and has performance-enhancing effects. NO is critical to many physiological processes and is essential for maintaining the integrity of the cardiovascular, immune and nervous systems. Decreased production or lack of availability of NO is a hallmark of cardiovascular disease, and a lack of NO can increase the severity of acute coronary events (angina and heart attacks).
Arginine is a natural source for NO production and is utilized for this purpose in many pre-workout supplements. To produce NO from arginine, an enzyme called NO synthase is required along with co-factors and a complex 5-electron oxidation process. This seems to be too complex of a reaction for production of such an important molecule that is critical to so many systemic processes.
So besides arginine, where else do we get NO from? NO can be produced in the body by utilization of dietary nitrate (NO3-) and nitrite (NO2-). A simple one-electron conversion makes this method of NO production much simpler and efficient. What are the best sources of dietary nitrates? Green leafy vegetables and roots, like beetroot. You can also pick up small amounts of nitrates and nitrites from cured meats like hot dogs and Slim Jims, but these may have other not so beneficial compounds in them like saturated fats and cholesterol.
Effects There has been a great deal of research around the performance-enhancing effects of dietary nitrates and beetroot in recent years. Beetroot contains a number of performance enhancing and antioxidant substances besides nitrates, including polyphenols like quercetin and resveratrol, as well as the amino acid betaine.1 Betaine by itself has been shown to improve muscular endurance, power output and strength.2 However, data from a number of studies points to the major player in beetroot to be its high nitrate content. Initial studies with pharmacological sodium nitrate suggested a significant improvement in the efficiency of submaximal cycling could be produced with supplementation.3 Further studies have demonstrated a significant improvement in high-intensity cycling performance with the consumption of 500 milliliters of beetroot juice per day.4
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