Nitric oxide is key to kingdom of healthy aging, scientist argues

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Nitric oxide is key to kingdom of healthy aging, scientist argues

Related tags Aging Ageing healthy aging Healthy ageing Nitric oxide

Underlying all the common biomarkers of healthy aging is one key element—nitric oxide status, says a scientist.

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Nathan Bryan, PhD, has spent his academic career studying the molecule and its role in the body. Bryan, an adjunct professor at the Baylor University School of Medicine in Houston, has come to appreciate that understanding the role of this molecule in the body, and how it governs so many processes, are the keys to the kingdom of healthy aging.

“There are three main themes when people talk about aging,” ​ Bryan said.

“First, there are the telomeres, at the end of the DNA strands,”​ he said. As these structures shorten and eventually erode away to almost nothing errors creep in during cellular replication. So each new generation of a cell is a somewhat faulty copy of its progenitor, leading to degraded functioning of tissues and eventual cell death.

“Then the mitochondria in your cells start to not work as well. So the cells themselves don’t get as much energy as they need,”​ he said. “And the third one is the whole stem cell question about the body’s ability to repair damage.”

Bryan said that it is an under-appreciated fact that nitric oxide plays a key role in all three of these process. It’s a rate limiting step, if you will.

Unified theory of aging

“It’s what we call the unified theory of aging. Nitric oxide controls telomerase, the enzyme that adds telomeres to the ends of the DNA. Nitric oxide controls mitochondria biogenesis. And nitric oxide is the cellular signal that tells stem cells to mobilize to repair damage,​” he said.

At its core, the aging process is all about blood flow, Bryan said. Having adequate nitric oxide levels is a key part of  maintaining open and flexible blood vessels. It’s a matter of simple fluid dynamics that a thinner-walled and more flexible tube requires less pressure to push a given volume of liquid through it. So nitric oxide governs another hidden factor of healthy (or not) aging—blood pressure.

“Every age-related human disease is characterized by low blood flow,”​ Bryan said. “Heart attack—the heart muscle is not getting enough blood. Vascular dementia or Alzheimer’s—same thing.”

Bryan said that many physicians don’t fully comprehend the role of nitric oxide in these key aging processes, partly because there is no way to measure nitric oxide status. Nor is there any drug that can be used to fix low nitric oxide levels.

“High blood pressure is kind of an indirect measure,”​ Bryan said. “If you have elevated blood pressure more often than not it’s a sign of insufficient nitric oxide.”

“But there are no nitric oxide lab tests. And there is no drug they can prescribe. They are focused on numbers on labs, and getting those numbers in the range they should be, like for blood pressure or cholesterol,”​ he said.

Complicated pathway

And there is the issue of the complicated pathway by which nitrates taken in via food or supplements end up as nitric oxide in the tissues. It requires a conversion via the right kind of bacteria in the oral microbiome. Some people naturally have the right oral microbiome makeup; others don’t. One of Bryan’s patents relates to a test strip to look for this, but many health care practitioners have yet to fully understand this step. 

“There are about 183 million people in this country who are using antiseptic mouthwashes every day, so even if they had the right bacteria, they’re killing them off,”​ Bryan said.

Proper diet and supplementation can help to address this hidden epidemic, Bryan said. That’s why he travels tens of thousands of miles a year trying to get the message out.

“The majority of my lectures are to physicians and other health care practitioners. I just got back from a training for chiropractors in Madison, WI. I try to educate them to the fact that you are not going to make your patients better if you haven’t fixed their nitric oxide levels,”​ he said.

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