Nitric oxide, human diseases and the herbal products that affect the nitric oxide signalling pathway
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1. Nitric oxide (NO) is formed enzymatically from l-arginine in the presence of nitric oxide synthase (NOS). Nitric oxide is generated constitutively in endothelial cells via sheer stress and blood-borne substances. Nitric oxide is also generated constitutively in neuronal cells and serves as a neurotransmitter and neuromodulator in non-adrenergic, non-cholinergic nerve endings. Furthermore, NO can also be formed via enzyme induction in many tissues in the presence of cytokines. 2. The ubiquitous presence of NO in the living body suggests that NO plays an important role in the maintenance of health. Being a free radical with vasodilatory properties, NO exerts dual effects on tissues and cells in various biological systems. At low concentrations, NO can dilate the blood vessels and improve the circulation, but at high concentrations it can cause circulatory shock and induce cell death. Thus, diseases can arise in the presence of the extreme ends of the physiological concentrations of NO. 3. The NO signalling pathway has, in recent years, become a target for new drug development. The high level of flavonoids, catechins, tannins and other polyphenolic compounds present in vegetables, fruits, soy, tea and even red wine (from grapes) is believed to contribute to their beneficial health effects. Some of these compounds induce NO formation from the endothelial cells to improve circulation and some suppress the induction of inducible NOS in inflammation and infection. 4. Many botanical medicinal herbs and drugs derived from these herbs have been shown to have effects on the NO signalling pathway. For example, the saponins from ginseng, ginsenosides, have been shown to relax blood vessels (probably contributing to the antifatigue and blood pressure-lowering effects of ginseng) and corpus cavernosum (thus, for the treatment of men suffering from erectile dysfunction; however, the legendary aphrodisiac effect of ginseng may be an overstatement). Many plant extracts or purified drugs derived from Chinese medicinal herbs with proposed actions on NO pathways are also reviewed.
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