Could an erectile dysfunction drug effectively treat coronavirus?
It may seem farfetched, but scientists in China have begun a clinical trial to see if sildenafil, a drug best known by the brand name Viagra, works against COVID-19.
The “little blue pill” increases blood levels of nitric oxide. American researchers are testing the gas directly to determine if it can prevent or treat COVID-19.
UCLA pharmacologist Louis J. Ignarro won the Nobel Prize in 1998 for discovering nitric oxide’s significance to the cardiovascular system.
Nitric oxide—not to be confused with nitrous oxide, the “laughing gas” used by dentists—is naturally created in your body by cells that line your blood vessels. The molecule has many functions: It fights toxins and prevents blood clots. Most importantly, it’s a vasodilator. That means it relaxes blood vessels, making them open wider.
Nitric oxide is an important treatment for lung diseases such as emphysema and cystic fibrosis. These conditions cause blood vessels and capillaries to constrict, choking off vital oxygen. When inhaled through a mask or “flute,” nitric oxide causes these vessels to relax and widen. This restores blood flow and oxygenation, relieving strain on the heart.
The colorless, odorless gas is also used to help oxygen-deprived newborns and to treat high blood pressure.
“It’s a pretty remarkable drug,” said Dr. Lorenzo Berra, a critical care specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He points out that, when inhaled, it only affects the lungs. It therefore has a “minimal” risk profile and few side effects.
Dr. Berra is leading a study to test nitric oxide in patients with COVID-19. Doctors hope the gas can reduce the number of patients who need breathing assistance from a ventilator. This is important because the machines are in short supply.
Doctors will have one group of patients inhale nitric oxide for about 30 minutes two or three times a day. Another won’t be given the gas. Hospitals in Alabama, Louisiana, Sweden, and Austria will conduct the same trial.
Researchers base their hopes on what happened in Italy. There, the gas appeared to dramatically raise blood oxygen levels in COVID-19 patients…But doctors gave it haphazardly. The new research will provide more rigorous testing.
Perhaps even more encouraging is the fact that nitric oxide also kills coronaviruses.
In 2004, researchers found it killed the form of the virus that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). And lab experiments showed that the gas cut in half the ability of the SARS coronavirus to replicate.
The SARS epidemic was quashed in eight months. So no further testing was done. Until now.
When the new coronavirus emerged, Dr. Berra remembered those 2004 studies. Which led to the research he is now leading.
Meanwhile, scientists in China are looking at bringing nitric oxide to bear against COVID-19 by another route— sildenafil (Viagra). That’s because the erectile dysfunction drug works by raising nitric oxide levels.
The Chinese researchers are conducting a pilot study. They are giving sildenafil to COVID-19 patients who are having trouble breathing but are not ill enough to require a ventilator.
Because the drug dilates blood vessels, the researchers believe it will enlarge the vessels that draw oxygen from the lungs, relieving the breathing difficulty.
5 Natural Ways to Raise Your Nitric Oxide Level
You don’t need to take a drug to increase the amount of nitric oxide in your body. Here’s how to do it naturally:
- Exercise. This improves endothelial function. The endothelium is a layer of cells that line your blood vessels. They produce nitric oxide. That’s one reason why exercise lowers blood pressure.
Researchers have found that you can boost nitric oxide production in 10 weeks by exercising for a half hour three times or more a week. For best results, mix aerobic training such as walking or jogging with resistance training, such as pushups or working out with weights.
- Eat nitrate-rich vegetables. Nitrates convert to nitric oxide in your body. Add plenty of these to your diet: Spinach, arugula, celery, cress, lettuce, beets, and chervil.
- Avoid mainstream commercial mouthwashes. Mouthwashes labeled “antiseptic” or “antimicrobial” kill “bad” bacteria in your mouth. But they also kill beneficial bacteria, including some that help produce nitric oxide. In fact, your body can’t convert the nitrates it gets from the foods listed above without those bacteria.
Use a natural, non-antiseptic mouthwash instead. You can make your own by mixing four teaspoons of baking soda in a cup of water. Add a few drops of peppermint oil and mix thoroughly.
- Consume antioxidants. Nitric oxide breaks down quickly in your bloodstream. Antioxidants slow this process.
They are abundant in blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, pecans, almonds, walnuts, dark chocolate, kale, carrots, spinach, onions, leeks, and garlic. You can also get them from vitamin C and E supplements.
- Take L-arginine or L-citrulline. They are amino acids. L-arginine produces nitric oxide. L-citrulline is recycled in your body to become L-arginine. Both are available from online retailers and health food stores. Follow the dosage suggestions on the label.
Nitric oxide may prove to be a powerful weapon against coronavirus. Pandemic or not, you will improve your health by raising your levels of this multi-beneficial molecule.
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