What’s so exciting about Nitric Oxide?

If you’ve been to one of my talks you’ll know that I talk about nitric oxide (NO), the über-neurotransmitter which increases and balances the levels of all the others: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin – all the “feel good” hormones which allow us to feel positive, to love, to bond and to thrive. Nitric oxide relaxes blood vessel walls which increases blood flow and oxygen to our organs and tissues, and decreases cellular inflammation. It keeps our cells healthy and vital. In fact, Stanford University research shows that NO is released when the egg and sperm meet in a peak moment of creativity. It’s what triggers cell division and breathes life into us. As I mention, it’s used in Viagra (because it increases blood flow so dramatically), it’s used in nitroglycerin to stop a heart attack by opening the blood vessels around the heart and it’s given to premature babies to open up their lungs and to get them working. It’s even what lights up a firefly!

The production of nitric oxide is triggered by laughter, orgasm, and other experiences of pleasure, as well as by eating fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants, meditating, and exercising (NO is at work in the sensation of the “runner’s high”). Anger, fear and grief deplete nitric oxide. So, what does this mean for us?

In this world where we are constantly bombarded by negativity, tragedy, fear and stress, just like this week with the terrible Las Vegas shooting, which is over and above our daily life dramas, our nitric oxide is naturally depleted. It is very hard to give ourselves permission to experience joy and pleasure, to look after ourselves and even to laugh when there is so much heartbreak and sadness. We feel that we should be doing something significant and life-altering in society. We should be doing more.

And yet physiologically we need nitric oxide to live and to thrive. We wouldn’t stop brushing our teeth because other people are suffering. And it’s the same with nitric oxide. We need to actively cultivate it in our lives and bodies. We need to laugh. A deep belly laugh. We need to find joy in our lives. We need to experience pleasure.

Don’t be put off by that word pleasure. It’s loaded with connotations and we’ve been taught that anything that’s pleasurable is suspect or self indulgent. Women especially have a tendency towards self-sacrifice, over giving and being overly empathetic. We easily give ourselves permission to do those, but we find it very hard to give ourselves permission to do pleasure! I have to hold myself back constantly from over-giving of myself, as it quickly spirals downwards into martyrdom and depletion which both my family and I bear the brunt of. We’ve been there. It’s not pretty and it’s not fun for anyone.

When I talk of pleasure we immediately think of sexual pleasure. And yes, nitric oxide is released at orgasm, which gives us that wonderful feeling of release and relaxation. It is a boost to our entire body – physically and emotionally! It is actually very good for us! But nitric oxide is also released when we really savour a comforting warm bath on a cold evening, or a refreshing swim in the sea on a hot summer’s day. It’s released when we connect and laugh with friends over a long, delicious lunch. It’s released when we play badminton in the garden with our children on a gorgeous spring evening. It’s released when we feel exhilarated and alive as we run or cycle an incredible trail. It’s released as we walk barefoot on the grass or as we have a nurturing massage. It’s released when we get lost in playing or listening to music. It’s released when we allow ourselves to be present for, and to really savour, life’s simple pleasures – the smells, the tastes, the sounds, and the feeling of touch on our skin – a cool breeze, a deep hug, the warming sunshine.

If we truly want to increase our levels of nitric oxide and allow our bodies to thrive, we have to stop living life from the sidelines. Once again, I’ve found that as a mother it’s so easy to default to this. “You go and play in the garden and I’ll make lunch”, “you take the kids for a cycle and I’ll do the shopping”, “you all go for a swim and I’ll sort out the admin”. It’s a natural default. And sometimes the thought of a swim or a cycle or a game of football in the garden makes us think that we may rather be doing the admin. But when we allow ourselves to get involved, we realise that it’s a lot more fun than we thought it would be! We feel alive. We connect with our joy. We connect with our children and our partners. We connect with ourselves. And it’s in these moments that our hearts soar and our bodies thrive. We can’t rob ourselves of these moments. For by experiencing joy and pleasure in our own lives, we give others, most especially our children, the permission and tools to experience joy and pleasure in their lives, without them turning to drugs and alcohol to find a release from the suffering of life. We have to model for our children how we would like them to be able to experience and enjoy life. And I’m sure that all of us would want our children to live joy-filled and purpose fueled lives.


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