Using Dynamite to Keep Your Heart Pumping

He opened up the morning paper to find his own obituary. And it crowed that "the merchant of death is dead"...

Alfred Nobel had hated war and violence his whole life. But, according to the obituary, Nobel "became rich by finding a way to kill more people faster than ever before."

Turns out, the newspaper had confused him with his brother who had just passed away, but the moniker bothered Nobel.

He willed a hefty chunk of his fortune to set up a trust that would award folks whose discoveries were "the greatest benefit to humankind."

These prestigious prizes are still around today. They're awarded annually to the best of the best in medicine, science, literature, and promoting world peace. We know them as the Nobel Prizes.

Nobel was the "merchant of death" thanks to his invention of dynamite. But his invention has an unintended – and shocking – benefit...

Nobel's dynamite factories used nitroglycerin, a type of nitrate, as an explosive liquid. Workers suffering from chest pains started reporting how their symptoms would miraculously disappear during the workweek – only to crop back up on the weekends.

Scientists observing this strange pattern figured out that nitrates are a vasodilator. That means it relaxes the muscles in the blood-vessel walls so blood flows to the heart more easily for fast pain relief in just a matter of minutes.

Today, hospitals use nitrates for heart-attack patients. You might carry some tablets with you on doctor's orders to treat sudden heart-related chest pain, or angina.

(By the way, don't miss my issue of Retirement Millionaire on my exact steps to take if you think that you or a loved one is having a heart attack. If you're not a subscriber, you can get more details here.)

Roughly 130 years later, three scientists solved the mystery behind how nitrates lowered blood pressure... and were awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

The trio figured out that a gas called nitric oxide ("NO") helps muscle cells relax. And NO comes from nitrates that get broken down, or "reduced."

Since then, science has uncovered the "Swiss Army knife" nature of NO in our body. NO molecules can injure our cells under certain circumstances. (Not to mention, NO outside of your body can react with oxygen that, when breathed in, can damage our lungs.)

But NO has multiple uses as a signaling molecule in important bodily processes that keep us alive. Examples of NO's beneficial roles are:

  • Decreasing plaque buildup and levels of "bad" cholesterol levels to prevent stroke and heart attack
  • Working with your immune system to kill disease-causing organisms
  • Enhancing exercise endurance and performance by increasing oxygen-rich blood flow to the muscles
  • Treating erectile dysfunction
  • Allowing nerve cells to "talk" to each other so you can form new memories, fall asleep, and more
  • Helping to create and release insulin to manage diabetes

Special proteins, or enzymes, create NO from amino acids (protein "building blocks"). This takes place in mainly the inner layer of the blood vessels. Other cells in other parts of the body can churn out NO, too, like in the brain, gut, skeletal muscles, lungs, and liver.

But one major pathway for creating nitric oxide happens right in your mouth...

Your salivary glands take the nitrates from your blood and concentrate them into your saliva. Among the big, diverse population of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live together in harmony in your mouth, there are certain nitrate-reducing bacteria. These "good guys" help turn those nitrates into nitrites, which then get turned into NO.

So, what can you do to maintain healthy levels of nitric oxide?

1. Eat your leafy greens.

Yes, yes, we all know that vegetables are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber that keep heart disease, stroke, and cancers at bay. But leafy greens are loaded with nitrates.

As a bonus, you'll keep those pearly whites pearly... Nitrates have also been found to keep your mouth from becoming too acidic when you eat sugar (which can lead to dental problems)... all thanks to nitrate-reducing bacteria. A small study published in 2020 found that participants who got a nitrate supplement after swishing a sugary liquid in their mouths had increased pH levels, as well as significantly reduced levels of cavity- and gum-disease-causing bacteria.

I always make sure to get some leafy greens each day. My favorites are spinach, bok choy, and lettuce.

2. Careful with that prescription antibacterial mouthwash.

It comes in a dark brown bottle. And it leaves an awful taste in your mouth (especially if you drink water right after swishing with it)...

Chlorhexidine gluconate mouthwash is usually prescribed for gum disease or oral-surgery aftercare.

But its powerful bug-zapping power has been shown to reduce bacterial diversity in your mouth – which is important for a healthy mouth. In particular, chlorhexidine gluconate can kill off the nitrate-reducing bacteria I mentioned earlier.

In other words, it could undo all the hard work you put into tucking into all of those veggie dishes and salads. And there's also the worry that overuse could contribute to antimicrobial resistance.

This strong stuff might help if your gum disease is very severe. But I'd talk to your dentist or oral surgeon about limiting usage or alternative options.

Me, I prefer salt water as my daily driver (with brushing and flossing). In fact, this simple solution can help reduce plaque, too.

A small 2017 study showed that to be the case, where one group of kids swished salt water for five days and the other group swished chlorhexidine gluconate while regularly brushing. While chlorhexidine gluconate worked better to decrease the number of bacteria that cause gingivitis and cavities, salt water was just as effective for reducing plaque.

Another small study from 2014 found that elderly folks in long-term care facilities who paired brushing with saltwater rinses had less plaque and dry mouth, as well as better-smelling breath.

All you have to do is stir a teaspoon of sea salt into a cup of lukewarm water. If it's too harsh for you, just use half a teaspoon instead. It'll cost you virtually zero bucks and save you from nasty side effects like stained teeth and mouth irritation that come with the prescription-grade stuff.

3. Avoid the supplements.

Now, you might see nitrates or nitric-oxide supplements out there for sale. But longtime readers know that I've always viewed the supplement industry with a critical eye. It's largely unregulated. And sometimes you get more than you bargained for... like the poisonous plant that wasn't disclosed in some dietary-supplement recalls a few days ago. So bypass those pills and grab a salad instead.

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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
February 29, 2024