Nitrates. These inorganic compounds, added to foods to prevent things like botulism and bacterial overgrowth, have developed an undeserved bad reputation. This is in no small part due to the fact that nitrates are common components in fertilizers and explosives, and because it was long thought they could potentially cause cancer. That’s why so many processed meats – think bacon, ham and hot dogs – are marketed as nitrate-free. However, this 1950s and 1960s belief changed in the 1980s and 1990s, when researchers discovered nitrate and nitrite were part of normal nitric oxide metabolism, which is critical to cardiovascular health. So critical, in fact, that the three scientists who discovered this fact were awarded a Nobel Prize in 1998.

How is nitric oxide made?

Humans produce nitric oxide in several ways. It can be made from the amino acid L-arginine with the help of the enzyme nitric oxide synthase. It can be synthesized from sweat nitrates by our skin, or it can be derived from dietary nitrates in the food we eat. However, we get substantially more of our dietary nitrates from eating leafy greens than we do from bacon and hot dogs – 80% versus 5%. It is now thought that vegetarians have a lower incidence of cancer and cardiovascular disease, because nitric oxide improves vasodilation, maintains optimal flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients through the vessels, and boosts brain and mitochondrial function, which all prevent a host of other ailments.

What does nitric oxide do?

“Nitric Oxide is the main player in your body when it comes to promoting vasodilation, which is the expansion of your blood vessels,” says nutritionist Mike Roussell, PHD. “This is an extremely important process, as when your blood vessels expand, they allow for a greater amount of blood to flow through them.”

From an athletic perspective, research has shown healthy nitric oxide levels can increase exercise performance, because more efficient blood flow and oxygen delivery to the muscles enables faster recovery, reduced soreness and a decreased demand on your heart and skeletal muscles.

“Increasing nitric oxide levels is increasingly becoming an important tool for recreational and competitive athletes that are looking to better manage fatigue leading to improved performance,” says Roussell.

Why do we need more nitric oxide?

According to Roussell, we have to work to keep our nitric oxide levels up, because both nature and modern life are against us. As we age, we produce less and less nitric oxide; men in their 40s produce 50% less than men in their 20s. Chronic stress and insufficient sleep severely limit nitric oxide production, and even your mouthwash is doing damage; antiseptic rinses kill the good bacteria in your mouth that is necessary for reducing dietary nitrates to nitrites in the production of nitric oxide.

“In addition to these factors, nitric oxide is also a short-lived molecule,” Roussell says. “It isn’t a hormone that can stay elevated for hours or days. It is produced, your body uses it, and then it’s gone.” In fact, nitric oxide has a half life of just one millisecond, which means we need to make it constantly.

“This is why having part of your daily health regimen that focuses on supporting blood vessel health and nitric oxide production is so important,” Rousell says. You can take a supplement, like AI Wellness Stage-2 PRFM™, that is designed to support your body’s natural ability to produce nitric oxide. Or, you can increase your intake of these nine foods to naturally support your body’s ability to synthesize nitric oxide.

9 Food to Boost Nitric Oxide

1. Beets

Beets nitric oxide

These root vegetables are rich in dietary nitrates, which your body can convert directly into nitric oxide. One study showed eating beets increased nitric oxide levels by over 20 percent in just 45 minutes.

2. Garlic

Garlic nitric oxide

One animal study showed a 40 percent increase in nitric oxide levels one hour after garlic consumption. Garlic boosts nitric oxide levels by stimulating nitric oxide synthase, the enzyme that helps the body synthesize nitric oxide from the amino acid L-arginine.

3. Dark Chocolate

Dark Chocolate nitric oxide

Research shows the flavanols found in cocoa help to maintain optimal nitric oxide levels. One study showed consuming 30 grams of 70-80 percent dark chocolate per day – just over one ounce – was enough to significantly increase nitric oxide levels.

4. Leafy Greens

Leafy Greens nitric oxide

Spinach, swiss chard, arugula, cabbage and kale, and the algae spirulina, are high in nitrates, which are converted directly into nitric oxide in the body. Research shows regular intake of leafy greens maintains optimal nitric oxide levels and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease.

5. Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and Seeds ntric oxide

One large study showed a direct correlation between dietary intake of the amino acid L-arginine and optimal levels of nitric oxide in the blood. Nuts and seeds – particularly walnuts and flax seeds – are very high in arginine, which contributes to the production of nitric oxide.

6. Citrus Fruits

Citrus Fruits nitric oxide

Oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit are high in vitamin C, which increases the bioavailability of nitric oxide and maximizes its absorption. Vitamin C also increases levels of nitric oxide synthase.

7. Pomegranates

Pomegranate Seeds nitric oxide

The seeds of the pomegranate are packed with antioxidants that protect your cells from damage and preserve nitric oxide. Pomegranate juice has been shown to protect nitric oxide from oxidative stress and increase blood nitrate levels.

8. Watermelon

Watermelon nitric oxide

One small study showed drinking watermelon juice increased the bioavailability of nitric oxide. Watermelon is high in the amino acid L-citruline, which converts to arginine, which is used to produce nitric oxide.

9. Red Wine

Red Wine nitric oxide

Test-tube studies have shown the antioxidants in red wine increase the production of nitric oxide synthase and increase the release of nitric oxide from cells that line the blood vessels.



Freelance Sports Journalist -

Lindsay Berra is a New Jersey-based freelance sports journalist who contributes regularly to the Sports Business Journal, Baseball America, ESPNW, Fast Company, Men’s Health, and other outlets. At and MLB Network from 2013 through 2018, she established herself as an authority on baseball fitness and injuries. As a senior writer for ESPN Magazine from 1999 through 2012, she covered primarily ice hockey, tennis, baseball and the Olympics. Lindsay graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she played varsity softball and men’s club ice hockey. She is a Level 1 CrossFit coach, triathlete, avid hiker and yogi.