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If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that there’s no one magic bullet when it comes to health. But there are a few things that come close.
Take nitric oxide, for instance.
A gas produced by the body, nitric oxide — NO for short — was such a groundbreaking discovery that the scientists who identified it won a Nobel Prize. These scientists found NO in the endothelial cells that line our artery walls, where it functions as a powerful vasodilator.
What that means is that NO acts as a signaling molecule telling blood vessels to relax, expand and open up.
NO helps the body maintain healthy blood pressure levels and other cardiovascular functions. It also plays a role in inflammatory responses and helps the cells in your immune system react more quickly to invaders. And it may improve glucose tolerance and lower fasting insulin and leptin levels.
In addition, NO appears to protect cognitive functioning. There are a few different theories as to how it achieves this….
How NO decline changes the brain
Some research finds that since NO boosts blood flow to the brain, it allows for more oxygen to be delivered to brain cells, which keeps them operating at peak performance. In fact, one study shows combining beetroot juice and exercise improves brain connectivity and makes the brain behave as if it’s years younger. Beetroot juice is high in dietary nitrates, which the body converts into NO.
Another study indicates that NO may be acting on a different aspect of brain health. In this study, a high-salt diet led to dementia in mice. At first, the researchers believed the salt was responsible for lowering NO levels, leading to reduced blood flow to the brain. But they found the blood flow wasn’t restricted enough to prevent the brain from functioning properly.
As the high-salt diet lowered NO levels, the researchers determined the decrease was also leading the tau in the brain to become unstable. The tau then would break off into pieces that built up in the brain, causing dementia.
To sum up, lower NO levels — such as those that occur with age — may lead to reduced blood flow to the brain and the kind of tau buildup that causes dementia.
The mechanism behind age-related cognitive decline
Now, a new study has dug deeply into the mechanism behind age-related cognitive decline and discovered another role in the brain that’s played by declining NO levels.
“The mechanism involves the mis-regulation of a brain protein known as CaMKII which is crucial for memory and learning,” says Dr. Ulli Bayer, professor of pharmacology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and co-senior author of the study.
Using mouse models, the researchers found that altering CaMKII caused similar cognitive effects as those that happen through normal aging.
When both mice and humans age, the amount of NO in the body decreases. This in turn decreases a process known as S-nitrosylation that modifies specific brain proteins, including CaMKII.
“The current study now shows a decrease in this modification of CaMKII is sufficient to cause impairments in synaptic plasticity and in memory that are similar in aging,” Bayer says.
The new research could lead to the development of drugs and other therapeutic interventions that could normalize the nitrosylation of CaMKII, thus treating or staving off normal cognitive decline for a period of time.
However, Bayer points out, this would only work in normal age-related cognitive decline, not the decline seen in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
How to boost NO levels
A few years ago, the Journal of the American Heart Association published a cohort study titled Aging of the Nitric Oxide System: Are We as Old as Our NO?
So the importance of NO is nothing new. But learning how to counter the decline in NO production that comes with age may be to many people.
The easiest place to start is with food…
Some foods that help boost NO production include leafy greens, citrus fruits and dark chocolate. But if you really want to encourage NO production, you need to learn to love beets. They’re by far the food that’s highest in the dietary nitrates that help the body produce NO.
If (like me) you don’t really enjoy eating whole beets, you can juice the beets and blend the juice with your daily smoothie. Or if you really want to make it simple, you can buy a beetroot powder or supplement and take it daily for that NO boost.
Remember to also skip the salt. A low-salt diet keeps your NO levels up and is also good for heart health.
Editor’s note: While you’re doing all the right things to protect your brain as you age, make sure you don’t make the mistake 38 million Americans do every day — by taking a drug that robs them of an essential brain nutrient! Click here to discover the truth about the Cholesterol Super-Brain!