Nutrition Public Health Research

Inside the mind of researcher Norm Hord

Nutrition and Public Health Associate Professor Norm Hord is studying the ability of plant foods called nitrates and nitrites to influence metabolism and signaling mechanisms related to cardiovascular function.

Norman-Hord-headerNorm Hord is an associate professor of Nutrition and Public Health in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. He completed his Ph.D. in Nutrition at Purdue University in 1994 and completed his MPH at Johns Hopkins University in 1995. He served as an assistant and associate professor in the Department of Food Sciences and Human Nutrition at Michigan State University before coming to Oregon State.

What made you decide to get into this field of study? Is there one specific moment that inspired your career path?

“As a teenager I was a tennis player. After doing well at a regional tournament, I needed treatment for inflammation in my wrist that was eventually diagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome. The treatment was a powerful non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory medication, and I experienced serious gastrointestinal and neurological side effects. I thought, ‘there must be a better way to treat this naturally.’ I started reading nutrition books, and that reading lead me to declare myself a ‘foods and nutrition’ major during my undergraduate degree. My intuition was correct. There was a better way.”

What does your current research entail?

“We study the ability of plant foods called nitrates and nitrites to influence metabolism and signaling mechanisms related to cardiovascular function. In a nutshell, recently discovered metabolic pathways show that dietary nitrates and nitrites can serve to relax blood vessels, decrease blood pressure, maintain normal blood sugar levels and enhance athletic performance. Dietary nitrates and nitrites add to the body’s ability to make nitric oxide in blood vessels using the amino acid L-arginine. These discoveries have led to a proliferation of nitrate-containing dietary supplements for human performance enhancement. These discoveries are in contrast to the scientific opinion, poorly supported by epidemiologic evidence, that plant sources of nitrates and nitrites are toxic. Plants are the source of about 80 percent of the nitrate in human diets; the consumption of fruits and vegetables are not associated with increased cancer risk.”


What sparked your interest in this topic?

“This new metabolic pathway, called the nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide pathway, has the ability to supply all of the body’s needs for nitric oxide. The body requires nitric oxide not only for normal blood flow but also for immune function, energy production and other cardiovascular functions. The special ability of these dietary compounds to supply nitric oxide to tissues has been shown to occur in animal models that cannot make nitric oxide in blood vessels.”

How will this make a difference?

“If our dietary recommendations included plant foods high in nitrate and nitrite, we could more effectively lower the risk of high blood pressure or hypertension in humans.”

What would you say is the most fascinating aspect of this research?

“As we age, our blood vessels become less flexible due to atherosclerosis and require a greater supply of nitric oxide to relax or dilate. Consuming plant sources of nitrate and nitrite can be a safe approach to maintain blood flow to tissues including the heart. In other words, as our body becomes less efficient at making nitric oxide in blood vessels, dietary approaches like this can help maintain normal blood pressure and cardiovascular function.”

What do you hope is the outcome of your research?

“We hope to provide clinicians and physicians a list of specific foods that, if consistently consumed, can maintain normal blood pressure to decrease risk of stroke, chronic kidney disease and assist with blood sugar control.”

Are you working with anyone else in the CPPHS on this project?

“My research associate, Dr. Ajay Maccha, leads our laboratory efforts. We are in discussions with Dr. Bo Zhang to assist with the design of our human studies. Dr. Ellen Smit is also being consulted on how we might address the assessment of populations for nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide nutritional status. Dr. Robyn Tanguay of OSU’s Sinnhuber Aquatic Research Laboratory has also been very helpful in the design of studies to utilize zebrafish to address these questions.”

Why is research important in the field of nutrition and dietetics?

“Specific dietary recommendations to lower blood pressure are sorely needed because less than 50 percent of the U.S. population has normal blood pressure. Dietary approaches to lower blood pressure are cheaper and just as effective in those with mild hypertension as pharmacologic approaches.”

What’s next for you? Do you have any future research projects lined up?

“We are studying the effects of dietary nitrates and nitrites in model systems and hope to develop successful approaches to studying these effects in humans soon.”

What is the best advice you’ve ever received, and who gave it?

“From a scientific perspective, my doctoral advisor, Dr. Gary Perdew, said, ‘Learn as many experimental approaches and techniques as you can.’ From an epidemiologic perspective, learn the paradigm of public health so that you can effectively apply your findings to important human health issues. The future will require expertise in multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaboration. It is difficult to do this if one only embraces a unidisciplinary perspective.

One of my mentors, Dr. George Comstock, said, ‘If it isn’t ultimately aimed at policy, it’s not worth doing.’ I met Dr. Comstock as an MPH student at Johns Hopkins University. We commuted to Baltimore for a short time together. While we talked occasionally during our drive time, he mainly was interested in listening to continuing medical education audiotapes, which he said he had been doing during his commutes for more than 25 years. Dr. Comstock was 79 years old at this time. He passed away at the age of 92 in 2007.

From a philosophical perspective, follow your passions always understanding that passion is often best employed in the service of others. Maintaining an open mind and a teachable spirit are the best qualities of teachers; there are few types of people more closed-minded than those who refer to themselves as ‘experts.’”

What are your favorite activities to do outside of work?

“I enjoy spending time with friends, exercise, music, travel and baseball. I also enjoy keeping up with the activities of our three sons and 8 week old granddaughter.”

For more information on Norm Hord and his publications, please visit his faculty profile.

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