Whether you’re in a profession or position that requires you to pull all-nighters or you’re simply trying to understand why you can’t get to sleep, science may have an answer for how you can stay awake—or fall asleep, as the case may be!
Enter nitric oxide, the simple combination of a molecule of nitrogen and a molecule of oxygen!
Along with a range of other health aspects, such as aging, efficient blood circulation, regulation of blood pressure in pregnant women, and better post-workout recovery, nitric oxide has a role to play in how you sleep.
Curious about how this works? The answers await you, so read on!
Nitric Oxide: The What
First, a little bit of an intro to nitric oxide (not to be confused with nitrogen monoxide, a colorless and toxic gas).
Nitric oxide is produced naturally within the human body and is a defining factor in several bodily functions.
One primary function is vasodilation—the process where the inner muscles in your blood vessels relax.
Vasodilation is important for many reasons, the most important being better and increased blood circulation, which results in lower blood pressure, a healthier heart, and better recovery rates after exercise.
Nitric oxide has two main components—L-citrulline and L-arginine, both amino acids and the basic ingredients of protein.
L-arginine is commonly found in dairy, poultry, red meat, and fish, whereas L-citrulline is found in meat, watermelon, legumes, and certain types of nuts.
Both L-arginine and L-citrulline are also available in the form of supplements, as well as powders, creams, and pills.
These supplements don’t directly increase the nitric oxide levels in the human body but contain ingredients that can collectively help the different processes that result in the production of nitric oxide in the body.
Why is nitric oxide important and what if you don’t have enough nitric oxide in your body?
You could be at risk of a range of health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, and erectile dysfunction.
Nitric Oxide and Sleep: What’s the Connection?
Nitric oxide is produced in the thick cell wall that lines the interior of your blood vessels, also known as the endothelium. Endothelial cells handle the production of nitric oxide, with the help of nitric oxide synthases (eNOS), an enzyme family that helps the process along.
Nitric oxide synthases are found in all cell membranes in the human body. The eNOS oxidizes our friend L-arginine within the cells, turning it into our other friend L-citrulline, along with nitric oxide.
Once this whole process is done, nitric oxide is released from each cell to achieve vasodilation.
When the arteries and vessels relax and open up, blood pressure decreases and overall circulation of blood becomes better, and aided by both of these, the heart does its job better, pumping blood throughout the body efficiently.
All of this leads to quality slumber, establishing that nitric oxide contributes majorly to steady sleep, also known as rapid eye movement sleep or slow-wave sleep.
This is further supported by research conducted by the Children’s Hospital Boston and the University of Helsinki, where sleep-deprived rats were alternatively injected with elements that promoted nitric oxide production and inhibited it.
In rats where the production of nitric oxide was stimulated, it was observed that the group fell quickly and easily into undisturbed sleep, whereas in the other group, all sleep was destroyed.
The nitric oxide produced in the rats came from the brain—more specifically, the basal forebrain.
You may have also noticed that as people grow older, the quality and quantity of sleep decreases. This is because nitric oxide production also declines with age, further aggravated by habits such as smoking, following an unhealthy diet, and not exercising.
Promoting Nitric Oxide Production
Promoting nitric oxide production is important for quality sleep, which in turn can make you a much healthier individual.
Sleep is essential for your brain; this is the only time your brain gets a break from all the input and can process everything it has learned and experienced throughout the day, while also efficiently storing away necessary information as a memory.
Additionally, sleep can reduce health risks, such as high blood pressure, migraines, seizures, and depression, and improve your metabolism.
All of these functions together can result in one extremely sought-after benefit—your longevity.
Therefore, along with factors such as your diet and lifestyle, good sleep can add several years to your life in the best possible way!
If you’re looking for ways to promote nitric oxide production so that you sleep better, here are a few ways:
- Eat nitrate-rich foods, as the nitrate is then converted into nitric oxide in your body. Green, leafy vegetables and beetroots are great sources of nitrate.
Nitric oxide is quite unstable, which means that it quickly breaks down in your bloodstream, and reserves of nitric oxide must be replenished. To stabilize nitric oxide, reach for those antioxidants!
Antioxidants such as vitamin E and C neutralize free radicals that destroy nitric oxide, making the latter last longer.
- Opt for supplements that boost nitric oxide production.
- Exercise regularly, as this keeps your endothelium healthy and ergo, your nitric oxide production healthy.
Stay away from the mouthwash, as this can kill several good bacteria that help nitric oxide production present in your mouth.
Conversely, if you’re looking for ways to inhibit your nitric oxide production, research shows that inhibiting nitric oxide synthases, downstream mediators, and scavenging nitric oxide can inhibit the production of the compound.
In any case, you don’t need to inhibit nitric oxide production if you’re planning to stay up for only a couple of nights or so, which is anyway the maximum you should be staying awake!
Your body will manage to pull you through this without any additional measures. Skipping any more sleep than this will require you to inhibit nitric oxide production, but will also seriously harm your system and is not recommended.
If at all you are going to enter a situation that requires you to forgo sleep, always visit a doctor and get their recommendation on how to go about achieving this, as you could otherwise be at risk of conditions such as sleep apnea.
Does Nitric Oxide Help You Sleep? The Final Word
Nitric oxide is an extremely important part of several bodily functions and sleep is one of them.
The presence of nitric oxide makes your sleep better, and good sleep is essential for a range of health benefits, such as better memory, better heart health, better metabolism, better mental health, and the deal clincher—longevity!
If you’re trying to promote nitric oxide production for better sleep, yay you!
If you’re trying to inhibit it, we would suggest that you not do so and instead find a way where you can get your sleep and still get the job done.