Spring break is ending for many Americans, which means jumping back into work and school routines and generally making up the time lost to vacation.
But there’s one way to draw out the benefits of downtime: take some long, deep breaths through your nose. Unlike breathing through your mouth, nose breathing helps release nitric oxide, a chemical that expands your blood vessels, lowers blood pressure and has an all-over calming effect. No wonder this technique is central to yoga, meditation and many other stress-relieving practices. While helping you to calm your mind, this tactic can help to achieve the clarity you need to retrench and regain control of the tasks at hand…and encourage heart health too!
Nitric oxide is vital for a healthy cardiovascular system, but deep breathing is just a start. Produced by the endothelium—the lining of the blood vessels—this chemical is highly responsive to healthy heart habits like regular exercise and low cholesterol. Lowering cholesterol levels helps increase nitric oxide. These lifestyle measures turn the nitric oxide spigots on, expanding blood vessels and increasing blood flow while curbing the build-up of plaque. (Nitric oxide is the basis for the use of nitroglycerin in treating the heart condition, angina.)
The opposite is true, however. When heart disease risk factors like smoking, a poor diet, lack of exercise and even psychological distress are present, levels of nitric oxide plummet and blood vessels begin to accumulate fatty plaque, setting the stage for atherosclerosis. Heart attack or stroke can occur if the plaque becomes inflamed and ruptures.
While maintaining the healthy production of nitric oxide is a good goal, compounds known as asymmetric dimethylarginine (ADMA) and symmetric dimethylarginine (SDMA) work against it. If you are concerned about damage to your blood vessels, Cleveland HeartLab has a test for these chemicals, which may indicate a low supply of nitric oxide and damage to the endothelium.
The test can help determine if you have risk factors that are increasing your chances of developing heart disease or kidney damage. In fact, research shows that high levels of ADMA independently predict future cardiovascular risk in patients with coronary artery disease, with those with the highest levels of ADMA more than twice as likely to experience heart attacks or die from heart-related causes, compared to people with the lowest levels.
The keys to raising nitric oxide and lowering ADMA and SDMA are the same:
- Eat right. Fill your plate with fruits and vegetables, lean protein and whole grains, and limit your intake of fat, sugar and salt.
- Get moving. Incorporate regular activity into your life and try to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
- Lower risk factors. Aim to to normalize your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels, using medications, if needed and prescribed by your doctor.
- Finally, don’t forget to breathe! Slowly now, through your nose for a few minutes, especially if you’re feeling stressed.