Nitrite, the heart healthy choice


Hot dogs might not be the first item a health-conscious diner would choose on the menu, but they do contain a preservative, nitrite, which may have a curious benefit for the heart.

In a recent study published in Circulation Research, Emory cardiac surgeons John Calvert and David Lefer identified the ability to produce and store nitric oxide as an important way in which exercise protects the heart from injury.

Nitric oxide, a short-lived gas that is generated in the body, relaxes blood vessels, increases blood flow, and activates survival pathways. The body stores nitric oxide by converting it into the chemical nitrite, and nitrite can be turned back into nitric oxide in situations where it’s needed, such as a lack of blood flow or oxygen.

In experiments with mice, Calvert and Lefer showed that four weeks of being able to run on an exercise wheel boosted levels of both nitrite and an enzyme that produces nitric oxide. Four weeks of exercising also reduced the amount of heart muscle damaged after a coronary artery was blocked.

How long the increased levels of nitrite stayed high matched the duration of protection given by exercise. Nitrite and the nitric-oxide-producing enzyme stayed high for a week after the exercise wheel was taken away, unlike other heart enzymes stimulated by exercise, which faded more quickly.

However, before ordering that hot dog, consider that most nitrite in the diet comes from green vegetables. —Quinn Eastman

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