By Jerome Burne (for the Daily Mail) - 28th July 2015. (picture courtesy of omnomolly.com)
Asked what nitric oxide gas is, many people might suggest it's 'hippy crack', the legal high that's landed so many Premier League footballers in trouble.
In fact that's nitrous oxide. But thanks to some recent and dramatic discoveries, nitric oxide could soon be far better known — for its many health benefits, rather than any dangers.
It's already known that nitric oxide, a gas produced naturally by the body and carried in the blood, tells your blood vessels to expand, so lowering blood pressure. That's why beetroot in particular is so good for blood pressure — the body converts the nitrites in this veg into nitric oxide.
Researchers have since found nitric oxide does a lot more, including helping you to sleep and fight off infections.
And now it turns out we have large, totally unexpected stores of it under our skin, and that our blood cells don't work properly without it.
This could lead to a total rethink on safe sun advice, the way heart patients are treated, and even how blood transfusions are performed.
It could also mean that boosting our nitric oxide levels — by eating more veg such as celery, or exercising more — could help prevent diseases including diabetes and cancer.
Until a few years ago, no one knew that blood cells even carried nitric oxide. Now we realise that it plays a vital role in ensuring cells get the oxygen they need, as research at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland in the U.S. has found.
'Cardiologists have always assumed that if your blood was carrying a normal amount of oxygen, the gas would automatically get into cells,' Jonathan Stamler, the lead researcher and a professor of medicine, told Good Health. 'Now it looks like that was wrong.
'What we've discovered is that the oxygen carried in blood cells can't be delivered into the body's cells unless it comes with nitric oxide. 'When you put red blood cells and blood vessels together in the lab, the blood vessels close up. We eventually worked out that the cells were missing nitric oxide. It was lost when you took the blood cells out of the body.'