Call to mind a major freeway: When traffic is running smoothly, the high-speed road allows you to zip across town in minutes. But if you hit an unexpected lane closure due to an accident or construction project, you get stuck in a merge bottleneck that forces you to creep along at a snail’s pace, growing more frustrated with each passing minute.
Now imagine your blood vessels as those roads, and that a smooth flow of traffic holds the key to fat burn. In the body, blood vessels form a network that transport oxygen, nutrients and fatty acids to cellular engines called mitochondria, which use these raw materials to fuel energy production.
To control the flow of nutrients in a way that optimizes fat burning and metabolism, the body relies on a crucial compound called nitric oxide to act as a traffic regulator. When cellular energy needs increase, nitric oxide is released to expand and relax blood vessels, effectively adding extra lanes to our internal highway to improve blood flow throughout the body. “By increasing circulation, nitric oxide brings oxygen, nutrients, and fatty acids to the mitochondria,” explains integrative physician Zach Bush, MD. “The mitochondria take all of that and turn it into fuel.”
The problem is, nitric oxide production declines with each passing birthday, making it harder for the body to keep metabolism speedy. “As we age, the amount of time it takes the body to make nitric oxide gets longer and longer,” says Dr. Bush. What’s more, Japanese scientists report that nitric oxide levels begin to fall as early as age 25. By the time we’re 40, the body creates just half the nitric oxide it did when we were 20. That leaves us with insufficient nitric oxide to open up extra lanes in our internal highways, so the blood vessels become congested with fatty acids, unable to get the nutrients to the mitochondria to be burned for fuel. In the short-term, this slows metabolism, leading to fatigue and creeping weight gain. Left unchecked, it can impair organ function, accelerating aging and increasing the risk of disease.
How to Increase Nitric Oxide Levels for Weight Loss
Fortunately, it’s easy to increase nitric oxide levels and turbocharge fat burn. “The good news is, no matter how low your nitric oxide levels are, you can take action right now to increase them significantly because nitric oxide is produced minute to minute,” explains women’s health expert Christiane Northrup, M.D.
Increasing production is as simple as eating foods that provide the raw materials needed to create nitric oxide and incorporating pleasurable nitric oxide–producing strategies, like deep breathing and laughing, into your daily life. As these strategies open up the blood vessels, mitochondria are flooded with oxygen and fatty acids, kicking fat burning into high gear.
The proof: In a study at Texas A&M University in College Station, animal subjects given water spiked with the amino acid precursor to nitric oxide lost 64 percent more fat than those given a placebo. And in human studies, women who increased their nitric oxide levels enjoyed results on par with those seen with a popular prescription weight-loss drug. It works outside of the lab, too: Women who incorporate nitric oxide-boosting strategies lose as much as 10 pounds every week.
Weight loss is just the beginning. Increasing the production of nitric oxide has also been shown to immediately improve immunity by 26 percent and promote restorative sleep. That’s not all: “We can become younger despite the advancement of our chronological age,” says Bush. The reason is that nitric oxide dials up the body’s cellular regeneration processes, replacing old cells with new, optimally functioning cells — and the benefits include thicker hair and glowing skin, as well as improved focus and reduced cognitive decline.
“What’s more, nitric oxide helps balance our neurotransmitter levels, including serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin,” says Dr. Northrup. That means increasing nitric oxide production can also help banish blue moods and calm stress. Read on for the easy how-to, plus secrets from successful slimmers that will help flatten your belly and revitalize your health.
How Nitric Oxide Helps Burn Fat
Increasing the body’s production of nitric oxide instantly improves the flow of nutrient-rich blood, firing up the body’s ability to burn fat for fuel. “With enough nitric oxide, your blood-vessel walls relax, allowing more life-supporting oxygen and other nutrients to flood your body,” explains Christiane Northrup, MD, author of Dodging Energy Vampires ($15.44, Amazon). This effect supercharges energy and helps melt stubborn pounds, and all it takes to see results is incorporating some easy diet and lifestyle strategies.
To start dialing up levels of nitric oxide, enjoy plenty of the foods that support the creation of the compound. “The body requires a supply of the amino acid arginine and plant-based nitrates, which act as the precursors to nitric oxide,” says anti-aging expert Joseph Mercola, DO, author of Fat for Fuel ($16.99, Amazon). Simply incorporate at least three servings of foods that boost nitric oxide into your daily diet. Top picks: arginine-rich poultry, seafood, and nuts, and nitrate-rich leafy green vegetables, like celery, beets, parsley, and carrots. In addition, Dr. Mercola notes that antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetables stimulate the production of nitric oxide, so you’ll improve your results by adding at least one serving to every meal.
Once the body is fueled up with the ingredients it needs to produce nitric oxide, some simple lifestyle hacks are all the body needs to kick-start the production of the slimming compound. “Taking good care of yourself and enjoying life enhances the production of nitric oxide,” promises Northrup, who recommends incorporating these easy strategies throughout the day for your speediest slimdown ever.
1. Take a deep breath.
“Nasal breathing stimulates nitric oxide production,” says Bush. Indeed, researchers in Sweden found that the enzymes that instruct the body to produce nitric oxide are largely created in the human sinuses. The payoff: UCLA scientists report that taking deep breaths throughout the day helps women torch 27 percent more fat without making any other changes. To improve your results, hum as you exhale. This causes vibrations in the nasal cavity that have been shown to boost the body’s production of nitric oxide as much as fifteenfold.
2. Relax in the sunshine.
“You can increase nitric oxide by getting out in the sun,” says Mercola. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland report that the unique ultraviolet light from the sun’s rays penetrates the skin and activates the body’s conversion of nitrate from food sources into slimming nitric oxide. All told, spending just 20 minutes a day in the sun without sunscreen was powerful enough to help women in one study lose 20 percent more weight than those who didn’t get a daily dose of sunshine.
3. Enjoy a good laugh.
Positive emotions — especially a good, strong belly laugh — can boost nitric oxide, according to researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. In their study, blood vessels dilated 22 percent faster than normal after laughter, an indication that nitric oxide was being produced. In a separate study, subjects who made an effort to enjoy life and be more playful burned 75 percent more fat and gained 200 percent more lean muscle than those who did not summon happy thoughts. “Pleasurable activities like massage, listening to calming music, and laughing, not to mention having sex, have all been shown to stimulate nitric oxide production,” says Dr. Northrup. “The key to health is to get regular doses of healthy pleasure!”
4. Raise a glass.
Researchers at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing found that a daily dose of approximately 500 mg of resveratrol, a polyphenol found in red wine, increases the activity of nitric oxide–producing enzymes. And this in turn increases nitric oxide levels by 90 percent to rev metabolism by as much as 29 percent. In separate studies, researchers in Italy found that the study-backed dose is available by drinking just 10 ounces of red wine each day. Don’t like wine? Try a resveratrol supplement, like Reserveage Nutrition Resveratrol 500mg ($34.39 for a 30-day supply, Amazon).
5. Take it easy during workouts.
Exercise ups the body’s production of nitric oxide, but over-exercising (where you’re breathing heavily) triggers the production of damaging free radicals that reverse the benefits, according to research in the Journal of Exercise Physiology. Bush’s advice? Aim to take a brisk 30-minute walk and spend a few minutes stretching daily. “We don’t have to exercise hard to get results,” he notes. “It’s simpler than you could have imagined.” Indeed, studies show this strategy leads to a 60 percent drop in appetite, a 65 percent increase in energy and a ninefold increase in weight loss.
How Nitric Oxide Helped One Mom Slim Down
All eyes were on Debbie Baker as she walked down the aisle at her daughter’s wedding. But her joy was overshadowed by embarrassment as she imagined the crowd thinking about her weight, not her dress. "This isn’t how I wanted this day to go," she thought. "I feel plain awful."
“Everyone knew me as the heavy kindergarten teacher,” reveals Baker, who lived in the same community for 30 years. But after moving to Florida, she no longer felt bound by that old identity. That’s when Baker found the bravery to walk into a TOPS.org support group.
With their help, she focused on eating more produce that is naturally high in nitric oxide such as leafy greens, carrots, and Florida grapefruit. “Something finally just clicked,” says Baker, who lost eight pounds in one week by eating right and getting out in the sunshine with her new friends. She adds, “I was happier and laughing more too.”
Baker’s effort helped her slim from a size 32 to a size six. “Every day when I look in the mirror, I think, 'Is that really me?'” she cheers. And since reaching her goal weight over a year ago, Baker has had a confidence makeover. When she crossed the finish line after a 31-mile bike event, she was bursting with pride and relished having all eyes on her. “My husband was taking pictures and I yelled, ‘Take lots!’”
Treats That Speed Slimming
Nitric oxide dials up fat burning to make weight loss effortless, and these delicious foods improve the body’s ability to produce the powerful compound.
Dark Chocolate: The abundant stores of plant compounds (called epicatechins) in chocolate stimulate blood vessels to boost nitric oxide production by 54 percent. According to scientists at the University of Indonesia, all it takes to get the benefits is 30 grams (a serving about the size of your index finger) of 70 percent dark chocolate daily.
Watermelon: This juicy-sweet summertime favorite is a rich source of an amino acid precursor to nitric oxide. Researchers in Japan discovered that increasing your intake works to boost nitric oxide concentration in the blood by 50 percent.
Pomegranate: Polyphenols in pomegranate juice assist in the production of nitric oxide, helping raise the body’s levels by 44 percent. These same polyphenols also protect nitric oxide from the free-radical damage that can deplete the body’s stores of the slimming compound.
Sample Meals to Jump-Start Weight Loss
Beet smoothie: In a blender, puree one peeled beet, one peeled carrot, one half cup of grapes, one peeled orange, a half-inch piece of fresh ginger, and one half cup of green tea until smooth.
Fish tacos: Fill two flour tortillas with four oz. of seared white fish and three fourths cup of shredded red cabbage tossed with one Tbsp. sour cream, one half tbs. lime juice, and two tbs. chopped cilantro.
Steak dinner: Serve four oz. of steak atop three fourths cup of brown rice tossed with roasted carrots, broccoli, and garlic. Drizzle with olive oil. Garnish with toasted almond slivers.
Chocolate pudding: In a blender, puree half an avocado, half cup of coconut milk, one tbs. of unsweetened cocoa powder, and one tbs. of chia seeds. Refrigerate for two hours or until set.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.