THE MIRACLE MOLECULE
Nobel laureate Louis J. Ignarro spreads the good health word about nitric oxide
STORY BY ARUSA PISUTHIPAN, PHOTO BY YINGYONG UN-ANONGRAK
Louis J. Ignarro does not think of the Nobel Prize he received in 1998 as the zenith of his career. As a scientist, he said, the prize is more like a megaphone through which he speaks to the world about the importance of healthy lifestyle.
"I am a scientist. Nobody is interested in listening to me when I talk about healthy lifestyle," said Ignarro, the 1998 Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine as well as member of Herbalife's Nutrition and Scientific Advisory Board.
"They'd much rather listen to movie stars or an athlete who takes steroids," he added, laughing.
Ignarro still looks good for his age. While talking, the 67-year-old's voice is strong and robust. While walking, his steady footsteps make people around him believe that the secret to his good health lies, in fact, in what he discovered - nitric oxide.
Ignarro is also a distinguished professor in pharmacology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Apart from teaching students for more than 30 years, he has dedicated his time and energy to researching what constitutes human wellness.
Ignarro did all his studies in the US, where he was born. He grew up in New York and finished his preschool levels there. He got his degree in chemistry and pharmacy from Columbia University in New York before furthering his medical studies at the University of Minnesota. He earned a PhD in pharmacology and then pursued a cardiovascular specialisation.
Despite his educational background in medicine, Ignarro is not a doctor. While many with a medical education in school decided to become physicians and work with patients, Ignarro, on the contrary, preferred to do research. And that decision eventually paid off with his career achievement.
"I have been working very hard to develop my career. Being a scientist who does the research is a very difficult task because there is a lot of work to do. But I have been successful in what I do, I think, primarily by working hard," explained Ignarro about what took him to his career success.
Ignarro's journey towards his prize-winning discovery of nitric oxide began over 30 years ago when he was teaching a medical class.
As his specialisation was in the cardiovascular area, in class, he often talked about drugs used to treat heart diseases. Ignarro was then teaching his students about nitroglycerine, a medicine that opens blood vessels to improve blood flow. When a patient suffers chest pain, or angina, he said, it means that there is not enough oxygen going to the heart. Within only five minutes after that patient puts a nitroglycerine tablet under the tongue, the pain disappears. With such an immediate effect, nitroglycerine has been commonly used to treat chest pain for more than a century.
"Nitroglycerine is a drug. But it's also an active explosive used in dynamite. So in the lecture, I was trying to understand in my own mind how an explosive like nitroglycerine could be used for treating heart pain. I went to the library to try to look up exactly how it works and I knew that no one knew," recalled the scientist.
Ignarro decided to research nitroglycerine in the laboratory. After three years of research, he found that it isn't a medicine in itself. But when it is taken into the body, it is converted and metabolised into nitric oxide. From that point, Ignarro started to see other effects of nitric oxide. He discovered that it actually has far more health benefits than he first thought: It lowers blood pressure and prevents stroke and heart attacks.
Surprisingly, however, at that time nobody knew the human body itself could produce nitric oxide, he noted.
According to Ignarro, nitric oxide is a chemical compound that can be found everywhere, even in the air.
In the human body, nitric oxide is a very small molecule, like oxygen, which is present in the inner lining of arteries. In other words, cells in the inner lining of arteries are the ones who make nitric oxide.
"Nitric oxide, once formed, comes in contact with muscle cells in arteries and relaxes them. It widens arteries. That lowers blood pressure and improves the blood flow."
More importantly, he went on, the chemical can prevent the blood from clotting in dangerous places. When there are blood clots in the heart or brain, patients suffer a heart attack or a stroke. If the body produces a sufficient amount of nitric oxide, the chance of developing the aforementioned problems is significantly lower.
Ignarro's finding also breaks the misconception that nitric oxide is a toxic substance.
"Nitric oxide itself is not toxic," he remarked. "But when it reacts chemically with other chemicals such as oxygen, in a high amount they form nitrogen dioxide. And nitrogen dioxide is poisonous."
Although the human body can produce nitric oxide, unfortunately, the chemical compound is very unstable. After the body makes nitric oxide, it stays around only for a second. Oxygen is also a threat to nitric oxide. But the good news is that antioxidant agents like Vitamin C and E can help protect nitric oxide and keep it around for many seconds instead of just one.
This makes Ignarro's statement about his desire to promote healthier diet and lifestyle more sensible.
"The healthier the diet, the more nitric oxide your body will produce. If you eat lots of saturated fats, it causes the destruction of nitric oxide, which can lead to the development of all kinds of problems including obesity, diabetes and heart attacks. So a diet very low in saturated fats and high in unsaturated fats is very good because it protects nitric oxide," he explained, adding that fish and fish oil are extremely beneficial when it comes to good health.
Eating food rich in antioxidants is extremely vital, noted the researcher. Those who eat vegetables and fruit are at lower risk of suffering a heart attack or a stroke.
Exercise is also vital as scientists have found that the body's most effective way of producing nitric oxide is through regular activity.
To promote the importance of nitric oxide, in 1990, Ignarro founded the Nitric Oxide Society with the aim of brining together people around the world who are interested in learning more about nitric oxide. Once or twice a year, the society organises a meeting for like-minded researchers and scientists so they can discuss nitric oxide, advance research and find out what else the chemical can do.
There are approximately 4,000 members of all nitric oxide societies around the world. Ignarro also started a scientific journal called Nitric Oxide: Biology and Chemistry, which focuses entirely on publications involving nitric oxide. Both the society and the journal have proven to be very successful.
"When I first started doing research about nitric oxide, there were only 10 to 15 articles published about nitric oxide every year. Last year alone there were 80,000."
The Nobel laureate runs and cycles almost every day to lead a healthier lifestyle.
Ignarro wishes that through his Nobel Prize, he will be able to get his message across to people throughout the world about the importance of a healthy diet and lifestyle.
"The Nobel Prize has changed my life completely," he commented.
"I received many invitations to travel around the world and talk to people about how to get healthier.
"Prevention is better than cure. This is a part that nobody wants to listen but it's extremely important because once you develop a disease, it can be very difficult to treat.
"We don't know how to cure heart diseases, cancer or diabetes. Drugs just make us feel better. They don't cure anything. But if we can change our lifestyle, live a healthier life and have a healthier diet, the chance of developing disease is much less."
NITRIC OXIDE: THE FACTS
Our human body starts to produce nitric oxide as soon as the foetus begins to develop in the womb, or, in other words, within one week of pregnancy. In fact, a developing foetus makes more nitric oxide than a born baby. Young child also make more nitric oxide than teenagers. As one gets older, the body produces less and less nitric oxide.
Females make more nitric oxide than men. Around the world, females between the ages of 15 and 45 have fewer heart attacks and strokes than men because their body produces estrogen hormone, which stimulates nitric oxide formation that protects them against heart disease and strokes. Thus after menopause, when the level of estrogen in the body comes down, nitric oxide levels also come down. Therefore, women in their seventies are actually at higher risk of falling prey to heart attacks than men.
Here are tips on how to stimulate the body's nitric oxide production:
>>Eat more fruit and vegetables that are high in antioxidants.
>>Eat more fish.
>>Take an nitric oxide boosting supplement.
>>Take a fish oil supplement.
>>Have regular exercise, at least 30 minutes every day.
>>Reduce consumption of fast food, highly refined food and food containing a high amount of saturated fat.
>>Stay well rested.
>>Consume plenty of water and other drinks which are high in antioxidants.