What is a Nitrate, Nitrite, Nitrates, Nitrites Health Effects

Nitrate and nitrite are nitrogen containing chemicals that are naturally present in the soil, water and atmosphere. So some daily intake of them by way of drinking water or eating soil grown fruits and vegetables is likely unavoidable, particularly if you consume spinach, celery, beets, lettuce, cabbages and radishes.

Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite (more often) are used as a preservative and color enhancer in processed meats and fish. As a food additive, it can delay the growth of some bacteria, most importantly botulism causing Clostridium botulinum, alter the products color and help extend its shelf life.

Food and drink is the major source of nitrate and nitrite exposure, typically up 100 milligrams a day. However, it could be at least double that if your primary food source is produce (fruits and vegetables) or processed meat. Your body makes some on its own as well, with greater production seen during infection and illness. And some of the nitrate you consume is converted to nitrite with the help of saliva.

Nitrate is used in drugs designed to ease or prevent the pain caused by angina, but does not cure it. How it works is nitrate relaxes your blood vessels, thus causing vasodilation. As a result, your heart receives an increased blood flow and its pumping task is made easier with less strained. Nitrate is also being investigated as a possible treatment for sickle cell anemia, cyanide poisoning, heart attack, brain aneurysm and pulmonary hypertension.

Health Effects

Taking in an excessive amount of nitrate can cause a serious health problem for infants, known as Blue Baby Syndrome. Nitrate that’s been converted to nitrite interferes with the ability of hemoglobin to carrying oxygen in the blood by changing it to methemoglobin, what’s referred to as methemoglobinemia. This means the amount of oxygen being circulated is reduced, causing health deterioration. If severe, the lack of oxygen can cause brain damage, coma and even death. Symptoms indicating this health condition may be effecting your child are dyspnea, pallor, irritability, vomiting, diarrhea and any blueness (some cases purple) around eyes, mouth, lips, hands and feet (cyanosis).

A few studies indicate children might experience other health effects caused by nitrate exposure, such as increased incidence of childhood diabetes, recurrent diarrhea and recurrent respiratory tract infections.

For adults, a long term exposure to nitrates and nitrites might have the potential health effects of diuresis, starchy deposit increase and spleen hemorrhaging. Taking in too much of these substances at once can cause abdominal pain, muscle weakness, bloody stools, hematuria and syncope symptoms. And sodium nitrite has also been linked as a trigger for migraines, so sufferers should check processed food labels for its inclusion.

What about cancer? This health concern is not with nitrate or nitrite themselves. But instead with nitrosamine, which is a known carcinogen. Nitrosamine is formed when nitrite combines with amine. Under certain conditions (not fully understood), nitrosamine formation occurs during digestion. And some antioxidants can inhibit this formation (another healthy benefit of consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables).