Nitric oxide for Health
What's happening in your arteries is closely connected to what's happening in bed. Learn about sex, nitric oxide, and you.
Nitric oxide is a very simple but important molecule. It is not the same as nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas.” The nitric oxide story is no laughing matter; it will determine how long you live. And it's an intregal part of sex and heart health.
Sex, Nitric Oxide, and the Endothelium
Nitric oxide is made by the blood vessels’ lining, or endothelium. The endothelium is exquisitely sensitive to the physical and chemical conditions inside our blood vessels. When the endothelium senses heart-healthy conditions, such as physical activity and low cholesterol, it releases more nitric oxide. And that’s a very good thing. Nitric oxide expands the blood vessels, increasing blood flow and decreasing plaque growth and blood clotting.
Sex, Nitric Oxide, and an Unhealthy Lifestyle
Conversely, when the endothelium senses high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, or emotional distress, it releases less nitric oxide, and atherosclerosis (heart disease) accelerates.
Penile erection depends on the release of nitric oxide. Viagra and other drugs like it that reduce erectile dysfunction work on the next step of the nitric oxide pathway. Are impotence and atherosclerosis closely related? Absolutely. Any lifestyle no-no that decreases nitric oxide, such as smoking, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol levels, causes both problems.
Nitroglycerin, which my grandfather took to relieve his chest pain, works by being converted into nitric oxide. In a sense, nitric oxide is the body’s own nitroglycerin. If you had first discovered how nitroglycerin and nitric oxide work, as three Americans (Robert Furchgott, Lewis Ignarro, and Ferid Murad) did, in 1998 you would have won the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Nitric oxide is that important.
Inflammation: The Long, Slow Burn, and How It Harms Your Body
High blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, and obesity cause chronic arterial injury not only because they decrease nitric oxide release but also because they increase inflammation.
In many situations, inflammation is helpful, if not life-saving: when we are injured, for instance, or when we have a virus or other infection. The body naturally responds by rushing white blood cells to the area to begin damage control. Scar tissue is accelerated, which heals cuts and scrapes. Without inflammation, we could neither survive the simplest sinus infection nor close the smallest paper cut. In our evolutionary history, a vigorous inflammation response gave us a survival advantage, because infections and injury were more of a threat.
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