kris ulland

Your Nutrition Partner

Nitric oxide (NO) is a substance your body naturally produces. It signals blood vessels to widen, allowing blood to flow though freely. Nitric oxide is a soluble gas, and while it’s a free radical and potentially damaging, it’s also an important biological signaling molecule that supports normal endothelial (the thin membrane that lines the inside of the heart and blood vessels) function, lowers blood pressure, and protects your mitochondria, the powerhouses in our cells.

Endothelial disfunction is a type of non-obstructive coronary artery disease (CAD) in which there are no heart artery blockages, but the large blood vessels on the heart’s surface constrict instead of dilating. The consequences are diminished circulation, high blood pressure, clots inside blood vessels (thrombosis), and atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis refers to the buildup of fats, cholesterol and other substances in and on your artery walls (plaque), which can restrict blood flow. The plaque can burst, triggering a blood clot. Although atherosclerosis is often considered a heart problem, it can affect arteries anywhere in your body.

Nitric oxide should not be confused with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas.

Nitric oxide decreases with age leading to endothelial disfunction which affects about one third of people without any prior history of cardiovascular disease.

You can increase the amount of nitric oxide in your blood vessels and even reverse endothelial disease.

Unfortunately, we cannot take nitric oxide as a supplement because it has an extremely short half-life, which means it’s too quickly metabolized and eliminated from the bloodstream to be useful.

Dietary nitrates are converted into nitrites by oral bacteria during chewing. Once the nitrites are swallowed and come into contact with stomach acid, they can be converted into one of two things:

  • Beneficial nitric oxide
  • Carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds such as nitrosamines – found in processed meats (Group 1 carcinogen – World Cancer Research Fund concluded that there is no safe lower limit for processed meats). 

Dietary nitrates are also more prone to converting into carcinogenic nitrosamines when heated, which is what happens during the cooking and processing of meat. Most plant foods are typically not cooked or fried at high temperatures, which minimizes the chances that harmful substances will be produced.

Also, plants contain antioxidants (such as vitamin C and polyphenols) that impede the formation of harmful nitrosamines. The presence of these compounds helps to ensure that the nitrites are converted into beneficial nitric oxide once they reach your stomach rather than harmful N-nitroso compounds.

The composition of your gut bacteria may also play a role. Research suggests beneficial bacteria help break down nitrosamines, while bad gut bacteria increase nitrosamine production. If you want to support your nitric oxide pathway and boost nitric oxide production, combine probiotics with nitrate-rich plant food.

While nitric oxide increases blood flow, it also aids efficient oxygenation of tissues and organs, and helps in the removal of waste and carbon dioxide. Nitric oxide infuses into areas that are hypoxic, meaning in need of oxygen, and both your heart and brain are heavy oxygen users. Nitric oxide also:

  • Boosts your immune function, making your body better equipped to fight off foreign pathogens.
  • Has powerful antibacterial potential. In vitro tests show it can kill most pathogens in the intestines within one hour. Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Salmonella and Shigella are particularly susceptible to nitric oxide.
  • Helps maintain physiological homeostasis. For example, in your gut, NO regulates mucosal blood flow, intestinal motility and the thickness of mucus
  • Helps suppress inflammation
  • Promotes angiogenesis, the formation of new, healthy blood vessels
  • Helps improve your physical fitness. For example, raw beets have been shown to boost stamina during exercise by as much as 16 percent as a result of the increase in nitric oxide production
  • Improves brain neuroplasticity by improving oxygenation of the somatomotor cortex, a brain area that is often affected in the early stages of dementia
  • Helps reverse metabolic syndrome and has antidiabetic effects

Research confirms you can boost your body’s nitric oxide production by eating nitrate-rich plant foods, thereby lowering your blood pressure and safeguarding yourself against heart attacks. As noted by cardiologist Dr. Stephen Sinatra:

“Adequate nitric oxide production is the first step in a chain reaction that promotes healthy cardiovascular function, while insufficient nitric oxide triggers a cascade of destruction that eventually results in heart disease … Plus, it prevents red blood cells from sticking together to create dangerous clots and blockages.”

Research shows a glass of beetroot juice can lower blood pressure as well as or better than prescription medication; raw beets have been shown to lower blood pressure by an average of four to five points within a few hours.

In one study, drinking 8 ounces of beet juice per day lowered blood pressure by an average of nearly eight points after the first week, which is more than most blood pressure medications.

Aside from red beets, you have many other options. Topping the list of nitrate-rich plant foods is arugula, which typically averages 480 milligrams (mg) of nitrates per 100 grams. Compare that to raw red beets, which average110 mg of nitrates per 100-gram serving, and beet greens, averaging about 177 mg per 100 grams. Fermented beets are a great source with 2 to 3 grams of nitrates per 100 grams.

As a cruciferous vegetable, arugula also helps protect against cancer because of its glucosinolate compounds, which contain sulfur. Loaded with chlorophyll, some small studies have shown it may even have detoxifying properties to counteract the poisoning effects of heavy metals in the system, particularly in the liver.

These foods will also raise your nitrate levels:

  1. Rhubarb, 281 mg
  2. Cilantro, 247 mg
  3. Butter leaf lettuce, 200 mg
  4. Spring greens like mesclun mix, 188 mg
  5. Basil, 183 mg
  6. Oak leaf lettuce, 155 mg
  7. Swiss chard, 151 mg

Your body loses about 10 percent of its ability to produce nitric oxide for every decade of life, which is why it’s important to take steps to increase your NO production, especially as you age.

Beyond diet, two other strategies that will increase nitric oxide production are high-intensity exercise, and getting sensible sun exposure on large portions of your body, as NO is released into your bloodstream when UVA from sunlight touches your skin.

Together, these lifestyle strategies can go a long way toward protecting your cardiovascular health as you age, support overall good health, and are especially important if you struggle with high blood pressure.

Bok Choy

The name “bok choy” originated from the Chinese word for “soup spoon” because of the shape of its leaves. Bok choy has a crispy texture one expects from a member of the cabbage family and a grassy flavor that increases in nuttiness as you cook it. It was first cultivated in China thousands of years ago. Bok choy, pak choi or Chinese white cabbage, belongs to the cruciferous family of vegetables.  Other cruciferous vegetables include kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collard greens, rutabaga, and turnips.

Bok choy are low in calories. It is a deep green vegetable with leaves that resemble the top of a lettuce and a large celery on the bottom. The entire vegetable can be used, and is often added raw to salads.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Nutrient Database, 1 cup of raw bok choy contains:

  • 9 calories
  • 1.05 g of protein
  • 1.53 g of carbohydrates
  • 0.7 g of dietary fiber
  • 0 g of cholesterol
  • 0.067 g of polyunsaturated fat
  • 74 mg of calcium
  • 0.56 mg of iron
  • 13 mg of magnesium
  • 26 mg of phosphorus
  • 176 mg of potassium
  • 46 mg of sodium
  • 0.13 mg of zinc – aids collagen production
  • 31.5 mg of vitamin C
  • 46 micrograms (mcg) of folate
  • 156 mcg of vitamin A (RAE)
  • 31.9 mcg of vitamin K – helps to maintain the balance of calcium in bones

According to the National Institutes of Health, for adults eating 2,000 calories per day and children over 4 years old, 1 cup of raw bok choy provides:

  • 3.7 percent of daily potassium needs – excellent source for healthy muscles and nerve function and lowering blood pressure
  • 17 percent of vitamin A – good for the immune system
  • 5.7 percent of calcium – good for building and maintaining bone structure and strength and lowering blood pressure
  • 26.5 percent of vitamin K – good for building and maintaining bone structure and strength
  • 3.1 percent of magnesium – good for building and maintaining bone structure and strength and lowering blood pressure
  • 3.1 percent of iron – aids collagen production
  • 35 percent of vitamin C – an antioxidant that shields the body from free radicals

Studies have shown that some people who eat more cruciferous vegetables have a lower risk of developing lung, prostate, and colon cancer. Bok choy also contains folate. Folate plays a role in the production and repair of DNA, so it might prevent cancer cells from forming due to mutations in the DNA.

Unlike most other fruits and vegetables, bok choy contains the mineral selenium. Selenium helps to detoxify some cancer-causing compounds in the body. Selenium also prevents inflammation and decreases tumor growth rates.

Cruciferous and other vegetables also offer protection because they provide fiber. Fiber keeps the stool moving. This keeps the bowel healthy and reduces the risk of developing colorectal cancer. Fibrous foods also feed healthy gut bacteria, which affects overall health, metabolism, and digestion.

Bok choy’s folate, potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin B-6 content, coupled with its lack of cholesterol, all help to maintain a healthy heart. A National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES) published in 2011 found a “significantly higher” risk of cardiovascular disease among people who consumed too much sodium and not enough potassium. Vitamin B-6 and folate prevent the buildup of a compound known as homocysteine.

Choline in bok choy helps with sleep, muscle movement, learning, and memory. It also helps cells in the body to keep their shape and helps absorb fat and reduce chronic inflammation.

The selenium found in bok choy has been found to improve immune response to infection by stimulating the production of T-cells that identify and kill invading bacteria and viruses.

Some studies have suggested that cruciferous vegetables can help people with diabetes to maintain their blood sugar levels. The American Diabetes Association describe non-starchy vegetables, including cruciferous vegetables, as “one food group where you can satisfy your appetite.”

How to Buy

Look for fresh, vibrant bunches of bok choy. Avoid any bok choy that has much browning around the cut “stem” section or wilted leaves. Unlike other greens, bok choy doesn’t lose its volume when it cooks, so a large bunch will serve 2 to 4 people.

Baby bok choy is popular because it has a more delicate flavor than adult varieties.

 

How to Store

Store bok choy loosely wrapped in a tea towel or place in a linen bag in the fridge for up to a week.

How to Cook

Bok choy can be stewed or braised, but the stir-fry approach seems to be the most popular way to cook it. When shredded, it makes great coleslaw.

Here are some quick tips:

  • shred raw bok choy and toss with other fresh vegetables to make a salad
  • add chopped bok choy to hot and sour soup
  • stir-fry bok choy with a variety of vegetables, some tamari sauce, and sesame oil
  • sauté fresh garlic and ginger in olive oil until soft, then add bok choy and continue to sauté until desired tenderness
  • mix minced bok choy, mushrooms, chives, and tamari sauce to make a homemade dumpling filling

This is the quickest and easiest way to cook bok choy.

  1. Separate the bok choy into leaves. Chop larger leaves into bite-size pieces.
  2. Heat a wok or large frying pan over high heat. Add enough oil to coat the surface and when the oil is hot, add the bok choy and cook, stirring constantly, until the bok choy is wilted and tender, about 3 minutes for crisp-tender bok choy and up to 8 minutes for fully tender and browned leaves.
  3. Add tamari sauce to taste and serve.
    If you want to add aromatics like garlic, green onions, or ginger, add minced versions towards the end of cooking to get all their flavor without risking browning them.

     

    Ginger Bok Choy Soup

    Annie Markowitz/ Photo Credit: Annie Markowitz

    2 Servings

    Ingredients

    • 1 tablespoon water
    • 1/2 bunch green onions, chopped
    • 2 cloves garlic, minced
    • 1 head bok choy, chopped
    • 1/2 teaspoon ginger, minced
    • 2 cups vegetable broth
    • 2 cups water
    • 4 ounces gluten free noodles of your choice, uncooked
    • Salt and pepper, to taste
    • Sesame seeds (garnish)
    • Red pepper flakes (garnish)

    Instructions

    1. Add 1 tablespoon water, garlic, and green onions to stockpot and heat them, on medium heat, for 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add more water if necessary to prevent sticking.
    2. Add in vegetable broth and water, and bring the soup to a boil.
    3. Add in bok choy and ginger, and cook the soup for 8 minutes, stirring occasionally.
    4. Add in noodles, and cook for 5-10 minutes, or until noodles are softened according to package instructions.
    5. Taste and add salt and pepper.

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