Hum Your Way to Health
With COVID-19 still wreaking havoc around the world, the race for treatment is on. Different organizations use different strategies to combat the virus. Just last week a biotechnology startup KNOW Bio in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina announced that they were able to demonstrate in cell trials that a solution containing the gas nitric oxide can effectively stop SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) from replicating.
“In a paper that KNOW Bio plans to submit for peer review, the company says it found that doses of nitric oxide reduced SARS-CoV-2 in cells by 99.9% after 24 hours compared to untreated cells. Importantly, the results showed that the treatment didn’t damage healthy cells.” (1) This is a curious development, because nitric oxide is a gas that our bodies regularly produce, and there are simple strategies to increase its production naturally. How does it work? Let’s explore.
What is Nitric Oxide and What Are Its Health Benefits?
Nitric oxide was discovered in the 1990s by Louis J. Ignarro, Ph.D., a medical research scientist. He was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries of how nitric oxide positively impacts health and longevity. Dr. Ignarro writes:
“Nitric oxide, also termed NO, is a gaseous molecule that is produced by our arteries in all organs to regulate cardiovascular function. NO causes the muscle cells (smooth muscle) enveloping arteries to relax, thereby causing vasodilation, or widening of the arteries. This physiological action results in a decrease in blood pressure within the arteries and increased blood flow to all organs through the dilated arteries.” (2) Through that action nitric oxide protects us against hypertension, heart attacks, and strokes. This quality of nitric oxide is also used in drugs like Viagra to dilate the arteries within the erectile tissue.
NO also relaxes smooth muscles in the trachea and bronchioles of the lungs, enabling us to breathe better. Small doses of nitric oxide given to newborn babies who had constricted pulmonary arteries result in an immediate and permanent reversal of hypertension. “In 1999, the FDA approved inhaled NO for PPHN [Persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn]. Today, it saves around 25,000 infants every year in the U.S.” (3)
In addition, NO contributes to immunological defense against bacterial, viral, fungal, and parasitic infections in the body. “NO reacts chemically with certain other molecules in cells to alter their function. The NO produced by our own cells can interact with molecules in invading cells such as bacteria, parasites, and viruses to kill them or inhibit their replication or spread.” (2) This is how nitric oxide is being used in the latest research to stop the spread of COVID-19.
In 2004 it had been shown in laboratory conditions that NO could increase the rate of survival of mammalian cells infected with the original SARS-CoV (4). There is currently a study underway that follows 470 healthcare professionals who care for patients with proven SARS-CoV-2 infection. Some of them are regularly inhaling nitric oxide before and after their shift to see if it can protect healthcare professionals from contracting the virus. (5) Another study is testing whether or not inhaled nitric oxide helps with oxygenation in mechanically ventilated patients with COVID-19. (6) The latest nitric oxide trials by KNOW Bio build on that, although their research is still miles away from being proven to be safe and effective for humans.
How to Increase Nitric Oxide through Yogic Breathing and Humming
Regardless of whether or not nitric oxide will be eventually used to prevent or treat COVID-19, sufficient levels of NO are necessary for the proper functioning of our circulatory, respiratory and immune systems. The good news is that our bodies naturally produce this gas and we can increase its production by doing two very simple things:
1. Breathe Through Your Nose
In addition to filtering out particles of dirt and pathogens, warming the air, and controlling the air stream, the cells and tissues in the nose continuously and reliably produce nitric oxide. “The physiological significance of this is that nasally-derived NO improves oxygen delivery into the lungs by causing bronchodilation—the relaxation and widening of the bronchi and bronchioles in the lungs.”(2)
When you practice yoga asana, notice whether you tend to breathe through your nose or through your mouth. If you find yourself mouth breathing, you may be pushing too hard. Ease up and relax your breathing.
2. Hum a Tune
Humming greatly increases the levels of nitric oxide in the nose. Research had shown that “NO increased 15-fold during humming compared with quiet exhalation. […] This effect is likely due to the increased contribution of NO from the paranasal sinuses. Humming causes the air to oscillate, which in turn seems to increase the exchange of air between the sinuses and the nasal cavity.” (7)
Humming is a simple, yet fascinating thing. So far it has been shown to:
- Increase nitric oxide production (7)
- Alleviate chronic inflammation or infection of the nose and sinuses (8)
- Promote limbic deactivation, taking the edge off our basic emotions (fear, pleasure, anger) and drives (hunger, sex, dominance, care of offspring). [This effect was shown after chanting OM, which has the same resonant qualities as humming] (9)
- Lead to parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) predominance, which manifests as a reduction in heart rate and BP, improvement in cognition, reduction in irritability in tinnitus, favorable EEG changes, and reduction in stress levels (10)
- Improve pulmonary function in healthy individuals (11)
Try it for yourself. Hum your favorite tune throughout the day and see how it makes you feel. In addition, all these effects can be amplified when humming is combined with certain common yoga practices—extended exhalation and contemplative awareness.