When you’re at the gym with your music playing and your blood flowing, nitric oxide is at work in your body. It helps to widen your blood vessels, and in turn can boost your training, improve recovery, and protect your heart and brain health.
While there are lots of nitric oxide-boosting supplements on the market, you can generally get everything you need through your diet. Many fitness enthusiasts eat a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, antioxidants, and protein. If this is you, you’re already getting some solid dietary sources of nitric oxide.
Nitric oxide is synthesized from the amino acids L-citrulline, L-arginine, and nitrates. Eating foods rich in these substances is a great way to naturally boost nitric oxide. Let’s dive into the best nitric oxid foods — in other words, what foods are highest in nitric oxide sources — and why they’re worth adding to your nutrition plan.
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
- What Is Nitric Oxide?
- Benefits of Nitric Oxide
- Best Foods With Nitric Oxide
- How Much Nitric Oxide Do You Need?
Nitric oxide is a free radical and a naturally occurring gas in your body. (1) It lowers cell inflammation and widens blood vessels. Vasodilation — or blood flow — is increased when blood vessels aren’t restricted. (2) Because of this relationship to blood flow, nitric oxide may help regulate blood pressure and improve cognition. (3)(4)
Nitric oxide is generated in the body by two pathways. One depends on the enzyme nitric oxide synthase; the second relies on the precursors L-arginine and nitrates, and L-citrulline as a precursor for L-arginine. (5) Nitric oxide synthase also helps to convert L-arginine into nitric oxide.
These processes happen naturally, but you can also increase nitric oxide by choosing foods and supplements with these important ingredients. L-arginine and L-citrulline are muscle-building amino acids that you may already be familiar with, and are already getting through your protein intake.
Nitric Oxide Natural Sources
Nitric oxide is a gas, and you can’t actually take it in gas form. While there are foods that produce nitric oxide, there aren’t actually foods that contain nitric oxide.
One way to boost nitric oxide is to eat foods that contain L-citrulline — the precursor to L-arginine — like watermelon. Foods that contain the amino acid L-arginine are also nitric oxide sources. These include some nuts, seeds, and spirulina.
You can also get natural nitric oxide from eating foods that stimulate nitric oxide synthase like garlic, cocoa, and some animal proteins. Vitamin C-rich fruits may also help to preserve nitric oxide levels.
Read on to get into the details of which are the best foods for nitric oxide production.
Nitric Oxide Supplements
Since nitric oxide is gas, you can’t take a literal nitric oxide supplement — though they can help bolster your levels. Look for supplements that include the precursors to nitric oxide including L-citrulline, L-arginine, and nitrates.
It’s possible to get all-natural sources of nitric oxide through your diet. If you’re traveling and limited with your food options, supplements can be the best way to boost nitric oxide on the go.
Nitric oxide has a direct impact on blood flow, and this has led scientists to study its potential health benefits. Since blood flow is important to strength training and muscle building, athletes may benefit from nitric oxide.
Blood flow has an important impact on your health outside of exercise, too, and studies show it may boost cardiovascular and brain health. Let’s take a deeper dive into the benefits of increasing nitric oxide in your body.
May Boost Athletic Performance
Healthy blood flow is key to exercise, muscle function, and hypertrophy. Nitric oxide has been found to relax and dilate vascular smooth muscle. (5) Some studies have suggested that by boosting nitric oxide, through this relaxation, you may be able to improve your muscle performance and strength adaptations. (5)
Increasing your blood flow through nitric oxide may help boost your athletic performance. Vasodilation can help deliver oxygen and nutrients to your muscles while training, which can enhance their contraction. (5)
This may also help to replenish ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, the energy currency of the cell. (6) ATP helps muscles contract and provides two to three seconds of energy for very intense short-duration activity, like sprinting or a one-rep max. The theory is that with more nitric oxide, there is more blood flow, and ATP can replenish more quickly. (5)
Enhanced blood flow can also allow for more training volume and a decrease in fatigue. (5) These little changes in your session can add up to long-term gains and muscle adaptations to training over time.
A study was done on citrulline malate — a supplement containing L-citrulline — prior to strength training in groups of both trained and untrained cisgender men and women. The results showed a small effect on the group who took the supplement versus those who took a placebo. It suggested that L-citrulline may help to delay fatigue and enhance muscular endurance. (7)
L-citrulline is a precursor to L-arginine, which is a direct precursor to nitric oxide production. This particular study was done on a supplement containing L-citrulline. It is possible that eating foods with this amino acid may also increase nitric oxide and help you out in your training.
May Improve Exercise Recovery
One potential cause of muscle soreness is a build-up of lactic acid after exercise. One study investigated levels of lactic acid in eight cisgender male athletes before and after training, while taking a supplement with nitric oxide precursor ingredients. (8) The study found that recovery was improved by speeding up lactate excretion from the athletes’ bodies after exercise. (8)
Eating nitric oxide-boosting foods, in conjunction with other recovery strategies, may help decrease soreness in between sessions so you can get back to the gym stronger and well-rested.
May Boost Heart Health
One major benefit of nitric oxide, for athletes and non-athletes alike, is the ability to lower your blood pressure. Nitric oxide has been found to play a key role in the protection against cardiovascular diseases. (9)
Vasodilation can reduce systolic blood pressure and help deliver oxygen and nutrients through your bloodstream. (10) Not everyone needs to lower their blood pressure, but folks with hypertension may benefit from eating foods that increase nitric oxide.
Studies on a diet rich in nitrates — one of the precursors to nitric oxide — show improvements in blood pressure and artery health. (11) Healthy nitrates are found in vegetables, and eating leafy green vegetables is one of the best natural sources of nitric oxide.
May Boost Brain Health
Eating foods that boost nitric oxide may also improve your brain health by helping the blood flow to your brain. Aside from its athletic benefits, nitric oxide is also a neurotransmitter in the brain and may help to improve cognition. (4)
For example, nitric oxide may help activate the brain’s ability for computation. Specifically, L-arginine — a precursor to nitric oxide — may help with this, suggesting that it may be helpful in treating degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. (4)
Eating foods high in L-arginine, like nuts and seeds, might be one way to increase nitric oxide and help protect your brain.
With the many health and athletic benefits that come from nitric oxide, you may be wondering how to raise nitric oxide levels in your body. Nitric oxide is formed from L-citrulline, L-arginine, and nitrates.
Other substances like CoQ10, an important substance in your body that produces energy and acts as an antioxidant, and other antioxidants have also been found to stimulate nitric oxide synthesis and protect nitric oxide already present in your body. (12)
Eating a diet rich in these sources of nitric oxide can help you reap the benefits of this important gas. Since it is an endogenously produced gas, remember that there aren’t technically foods containing nitric oxide. But you can eat foods to increase nitric oxide by getting plenty of raw vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and other healthy sources in your diet.
What fruits and vegetables are high in nitric oxide producing sources? And which foods high in nitric oxide precursors should you have before your next workout? Let’s dive a little deeper into the specific nutritional details.
- Chia seeds
- Leafy green vegetables
- Broccoli, cauliflower, carrots
- Meat, poultry, seafood
Watermelon is the main food source of L-citrulline and is the best way to increase nitric oxide bioavailability by ingesting L-citrulline without a supplement. (13)
Beetroot is rich in dietary nitrates, the next precursor to nitrate oxide synthesis. (19) It’s one of the best nitric oxide-boosting foods containing nitrates and other nutrients and can be consumed raw or in its pure juice form.
Dark leafy green vegetables including kale and spinach are all great sources of nitrates. These are some of the best vegetables high in nitric oxide-boosting ingredients and have many other health benefits as well. (21)
Broccoli is high in antioxidants and fiber. One 100-gram serving of broccoli provides 2.57 grams of protein, 0.34 grams of fat, and 6.27 grams of carbohydrates. (24)
Cauliflower is another great source of fiber and antioxidants. Its low calorie and filling content makes it a popular food in recipes helpful for fat loss. One 100-gram serving of cauliflower has 1.92 grams of protein, 0.28 grams of fat, and 4.97 grams of carbohydrates. (25)
CoQ10 has other health benefits as well. If you are eating other foods as ways to naturally enhance nitric oxide, you may want to include CoQ10 sources as a way to help preserve it.
Fermented garlic extract may improve vascular function by increasing nitric oxide bioavailability. (28) While garlic doesn’t directly cause nitric oxide production like its precursors, it still contributes to its production. Cooking with garlic can be a great way to boost nitric oxide in food.
Cocoa, found in dark chocolate, is rich in flavonols. Flavonols have been found to induce vasodilation by boosting nitric oxide. (29) Cocoa is also rich in antioxidants and can help preserve nitric oxide levels.
Similar to garlic, cocoa doesn’t directly produce nitric oxide. But it contributes to improved vasodilation, which is boosted by nitric oxide, and a link between the two has been suggested in studies. (29)
While it may not be the best source of nitric oxide, having some dark chocolate for dessert has health benefits including a healthy blood flow.
There is not currently a recommended amount of nitric oxide that you need per day. Since it is a gas naturally produced in your body, it is difficult to measure, and not possible to take directly.
If you are eating foods with nitric oxide precursors, you may want to consider different sources for different fitness goals. While you can’t aim for a specific amount of it, you can include those nitric oxide sources to hit your nutrient intake goals when fueling up pre and post-workout.
Nitric Oxide for Strength
Since nitric oxide helps with ATP production, you may want to include a nitric oxide precursor in your pre-workout before a powerlifting session. A source of L-citrulline, like watermelon juice, is often used in pre-workout. (30)
Nitric Oxide for Muscle Growth
If your goal is hypertrophy, the nitric oxide precursor L-arginine may be helpful since it is a muscle-building amino acid. Choosing a natural source of L-arginine, like walnuts, may be helpful in a post-workout snack. (15)
Nitric Oxide for Endurance
If you’re looking for drinks that will directly boost nitric oxide, you may want to try beetroot powder or juice as part of your pre-workout nourishment. Beetroot contains nitrates, which have been shown to potentially improve muscular performance and blood flow, as well as increase time spent training before fatigue. (5)
Nitric Oxide for Recovery
Nitric oxide has been shown to potentially decrease muscle soreness by speeding up lactate excretion after resistance training. (8) When you’re hitting your regular macros for your fitness goal, choosing to add food rich in nitric oxide sources can help you boost your levels.
If you love a protein shake after your workout, check that the protein powder you use includes L-arginine — if it’s a complete protein source, it likely will. You can boost your nitric oxide for recovery by following your regular intake of protein.
Eat Your Greens
Fancy a beet and watermelon juice in the morning? It’s not just for an island vacation, but a regular day at the gym. Nitric oxide has become popular in fitness culture for its potential benefits on athletic performance and cardiovascular health.
While there are supplements you can take with precursors L-citrulline, L-arginine, and nitrates, there are plenty of foods you may already be eating that contribute.
Whether it’s adding leafy greens to your post-workout shake, boosting your CoQ10 levels when eating chicken for dinner, or finishing off the night with some flavonoid-rich dark chocolate, you may already be getting a good amount of nitric oxide in food from your regular diet. If you’re not, simply crack open some walnuts, and become a nitric oxide natural.
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