Nitric oxide is well known as an endurance supplement, but do you know what else you’re missing if you’re performing without it? If you’re looking for the best way to enhance your performance, this article is your source for the most recent sports research on natural nitrate supplements.
Why Would You Want More Nitric Oxide?
Nitric oxide (“N-O” for short) is a simple molecule with profound effects. Doctors know it for how it makes blood vessels dilate and relax. Physiologists know it for the effect it has on oxygen use. Beyond that, it’s effects on your gut, your brain, and even the mitochondria that power your cells are well researched, but not well known.
Nitric oxide levels decline with age, cardiovascular disease like hypertension, metabolic disorders like diabetes, and a variety of other conditions such as chronic inflammation.
Use antibacterial mouthwash regularly? You probably have low N-O levels. Use antacids like proton pump inhibitors (PPIs)? You probably have low N-O levels. Older, inflamed, have a chronic condition? You get the picture.
If you want to know how nitrates have been shown beneficial in these settings, check out part one on this topic here.
If you’re young and fit, though, are nitrates going to make a difference?
The research supporting N-O for professional athletes goes back decades. So decide for yourself if you want to rise to your potential or get left in the dust!
How Do You Get Nitric Oxide?
Nitric oxide is made in two major ways: from amino acids (which is capped and highly regulated) and from inorganic nitrates.
Your body can make N-O from amino acids—the smallest building blocks of proteins—but the amount you can get from them is limited, and the research shows that they might not even work to boost nitric oxide levels!
When the nitric-oxide-forming amino acids arginine and citrulline are sapped, your body can ramp up nitric oxide via another source: natural nitrates and nitrites.
You would recognize top nitrate-containing foods for their health benefits: spinach, beets (beetroot or beet juice), arugula (“rocket”), chard, and a number of other leafy veggies.
Recently, Aronia berry (“chokeberry”) and red spinach (“amaranth”) have emerged as the very best sources of nitrates.
Red beet root has been the industry standard for raising NO levels. There’s nothing wrong with the tried and true, professional-quality benefits from beet juice, but there’s a catch:
- First, nitrate levels in beets vary considerably. One batch can have 10 times the amount as another from the same farm.
- Frankly, the nitrate levels in beets punch like a lightweight compared to the heavy-hitting doses in red spinach.
Depending on where and when they’re planted, how they’re grown, and how they’re stored and processed, you might get enough nitrates from beets to beat your personal record… or you might just be painting your plate red.
You just don’t know how much of a benefit you’re getting when you down a couple pounds of roasted beets (yes, it takes the nitrates in about 2 or 3 beets to get the immediate benefits shown in research).
You can try beet juice as well, but you’ll have the same problems: concentrated doesn’t always deliver. Check out our table comparing nitrate doses from many different sources.
Plus, the extra sugar in most beet juices can spike your blood sugar and insulin. That’s not necessarily a problem if you’re a high-performing athlete recovering from an event, but it’s definitely a no if you care about healthy, normal metabolism.
A standardized nitrate supplement一one that guarantees a minimum level of nitrates per serving—eliminates these issues. Other supplements might provide a benefit, but going with a standardized and certified beet powder makes sure.
Beet powder may have been popular in the past, but research evolves and the newest science says there are even better sources of natural nitrates.
Red Spinach (Amaranthus tricolor)
Red spinach is taking the sports supplement industry by storm. Recent research shows that just a fraction of the amount of red spinach can produce substantial endurance gains compared to beetroot extract. Red spinach extract also has vitamin E, potassium, and is loaded with inflammation-fighting antioxidants for your physical and mental health to put you at ease whether you’re facing a tournament or adding grace to your years.
Chokeberry (Aronia Melancarpa)
Aronia berries are a concentrated source of unique antioxidants plus a remarkable amount of dietary nitrates. Even the types of aronia berries that have the lowest levels of nitrates make ruby-red beets pale to a paltry pink. Research in humans is still catching up, but studies show that it may have promising effects on inflammation in athletes and may lower cholesterol and triglycerides, among other benefits.
Turmeric (Curcumin longa)
Turmeric doesn’t have any nitrates in it, but its ochre active ingredient curcumin can still help boost nitrate-making processes in healthy adults. Add on the other health benefits of one of the most powerful anti-inflammatory agents known to humankind, and you can see that it’s a great pair to any nitrate source.
Mango (Mangifera indica)
If you’re considering a nitric oxide supplement, make sure you’re getting one that actually works. If you want to know what the best and most popular nitrate supplement is, check out our guide here!
You know how it’s made. You know who might have low levels. You know where to get it. But who should supplement with nitric oxide in the first place?
5 Physical Performance Benefits of Nitric Oxide
Now you have the top five reasons to use a N-O supplement for general health, how about nitric oxide for physical performance enhancement?
Let’s do some heavier lifting and look at what put beets on the supplement scene and where the science is taking us.
Whether you’re a pro, a recreational athlete, or you just got your first gym membership, overlook nitrates and you’re overlooking your potential!
1. Raise Exercise Tolerance
Researchers can say “red spinach extract raises ventilatory threshold” but it’s not quite obvious what that means for you or I.
Essentially, regardless of what you train for, nitrates let you go longer.
When your breath rate gets in the way of your reps, that’s what exercise physiologists call the “ventilatory threshold”. If your ventilatory threshold is higher than the next person’s, you’ll be able to go longer at the same rate.
On the flip side, you can bump your speed up to the point that you’re breathing as hard as them, and get more reps or laps for the same apparent effort.
Note that your maximum oxygen intake doesn’t change when you take a nitrate supplement. Only the cost of that oxygen一how much air it takes to do some amount of work一is lower.
To maximize its effect, you may need to take it on more than just game day. And to ensure that your nitrate supplement delivers what it says it does, make sure it’s standardized and make sure it’s certified (NSF is the best available).
2. Nitrates Increase Time To Exhaustion In Endurance Exercise
With a supplement that allows you do an equivalent amount of work for less effort, it’s easy to see how it could be applied to endurance sports. When averaged out, the results of many studies show that raising nitric oxide levels can lengthen the time it takes to become exhausted.
Besides the performance enhancing effect of nitrates themselves, the antioxidants in chokeberry and other colorful fruits might also reduce inflammation post-workout.
Even though lower doses of nitrates may work for people just trying to stay fit, note that for athletes it will take a higher dose for the same benefits.
So how do you know how much nitrates you’re getting? If only it was as easy as looking at the label!
Start by taking a look at this table generated from an independant, university-led study. That will give you a picture of what nitrate supplements to consider.
If a supplement is not listed there, check with the manufacturer to make sure it delivers at least 6.5 mmol nitrates per serving. If they can’t tell you, it’s best to avoid it all-together. What else do they not know about the product they make?
3. Nitrates Increase Muscle Efficiency In Resistance Exercise
Nitrates are known for their effect in endurance exercise, but what advantages can they provide for someone lifting weights or doing some low-volume, high-weight exercise?
The same principles of oxygen use apply. Even in moderate and heavy intensity training, nitrates decrease the oxygen used for a given amount of work.
This effect has some positive downstream effects too. Because you’re muscles are using less ATP一the energy currency of your cells一they use less creatine during maximal effort.
This doesn’t affect the maximum force your muscles can produce, but it does mean that the muscles are working more efficiently. So, nitrates can improve the number of reps you’re able to sustain.
When it comes to power-lifting and moving heavy objects around, I see nitrates as being best for two things:
Taking them on competition day won’t increase your max weight, but they can definitely help along the way to a PR.
4. Nitrates Improve Oxygenation and Microcirculation
Due to their effect on blood vessels, nitrates helps get oxygen out of your veins and into the surrounding muscles and connective tissue. That has huge consequences for the way your muscles and connective tissue get the nutrients they need.
Nitrate’s nutrient-delivering benefits are most obvious in low-oxygen environments. That’s especially important for tissues that don’t have access to big arteries and blood veins—so called “microvasculature”—or when your breathing your hardest.
Nitrate’s positive effects on microvasculature are another reason they may be especially important for people with hypertension, obesity, and diabetes.
Increased oxygen perfusion suggests that other nutrients like amino acids and blood sugar can be delivered at a faster rate. On the flip side, increased blood perfusion might also mean that waste products may be carried away faster.
More effective nutrient delivery and waste elimination? That sounds like a winning combination to optimize recovery.
Despite all the other benefits that Resync Recovery delivers, this nitrate blend is most known in the way it can support the inflammatory response from exercise. Check out our article that explains how else you can support your recovery here.
In addition to increasing the distance run in a time trial, nitrates can lead to a slightly lower blood glucose level post-exercise. This might mean that muscles with greater nitric oxide availability are able to use glucose for fuel better than people who don’t supplement.
On the other hand, there were no differences in lactate levels in this study, and other studies have had variable results when testing the effects of nitrates on interval training.
As nitric oxide researcher Dr. Andy Jones emphasizes, “It's very important, therefore, for both the delivery of oxygen to muscle and the utilization of that oxygen within muscle“.
The specifics of why it may work for some but not others isn’t entirely clear, but you can expect a recovery advantage when you use a highly concentrated, quality certified supplement.
5. Nitrates Make Mitochondria More Efficient
If what the research says is true, nitrates may have promise for more than just what we’ve mentioned. The way nitrates make your mitochondria more efficient has potential that cuts across disciplines.
They could enhance longevity and reduce the risk of conditions associated with mitochondrial dysfunction. They could have huge effects on mitochondrial metabolism, and downstream effects on whole-body metabolism.
Nitrates speed up the rate that your mitochondria can regenerate ATP—the dollar that your cells use to buy work. Nitrates can make your cells more efficient at creating the energy that powers you.
Think of the implications. Aging, obesity, and almost all chronic diseases limit your mitochondria from making energy. This can create a metabolic state where the cells become sluggish and speed up the negative effects of these conditions.
Add nitrates to your diet and you’ll see the positive effects on your mitochondria, your oxygen and nutrient delivery, your performance, and the health of most一if not all一your organ systems.
NO is a universal signalling molecule after all. What benefits will science discover next? We’ll be the ones to let you know as soon as the studies are released!
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Written by registered dietitian, Detrick Snyder, MPH, RDN. Updated 09/22/2020