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Nitrite: from cured meat to protected heart

Nitrite may be best known as a food additive used in cured meats such as hot dogs, but medical researchers are studying how it could treat several conditions, including preventing damage to the heart after a heart attack.

Leaders in the nitrite field are meeting May 11 -13, 2011 at Emory Conference Center in Atlanta. One of the lead organizers is David Lefer, PhD, professor of surgery at Emory University School of Medicine and director of the Cardiothoracic Research Laboratory. Lefer discusses the beneficial effects of nitrite in the video below. More information about the meeting is available here.

Scientists think supplying a pulse of nitrite can reduce injury to heart tissue coming from the interruption of blood flow. Several clinical trials are now investigating nitrite as a therapy for conditions such as heart attack, ruptured aneurysm, sickle cell pain crisis and cardiac arrest.

Nitrite acts as the body’s reserve for nitric oxide, which turns on chemical pathways that relax blood vessels. Delivering nitric oxide directly into the body is expensive and hard to control. Unlike nitric oxide, whose lifetime in the body is a few seconds, nitrite is stable and stored in the body’s tissues and can be delivered in a variety of ways. It is converted into nitric oxide under conditions when the body needs it: lack of blood or oxygen. In addition, sodium nitrite has been used as part of a cyanide antidote kit. This means that safety data on large doses of nitrite in critically ill people is available.

In a 2005 paper published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, Lefer and colleagues showed that nitrite can reduce damage to the hearts of mice after a simulated heart attack. More recently, assistant professor John Calvert and Lefer have shown that internally generated and stored nitrite is an important way that exercise protects the heart from a heart attack.

Some blood pressure studies underway in Europe have participants consume large amounts of beet juice as their source of nitrate, which is then converted to nitrite in the body.

A wave of public concern about nitrite and its relative nitrate in the 1970s focused on their presence in cured meats and their ability to form nitrosamines, which can be carcinogenic. Subsequent investigation showed that actually, most of the nitrite and nitrate in the average adult’s diet come from vegetables such as broccoli and spinach, and that antioxidants such as vitamin C can prevent nitrosamine formation.

Nathan Bryan, a speaker at the conference from UT-Houston, was featured in a recent television news story about herbal supplements designed to boost nitrite in the body.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Heart 2 Comments