Nitric oxide (NO) is metabolized to nitrate in humans. Accordingly, plasma nitrate has been proposed as an index of the in vivo formation of NO. Such an application requires knowledge about the possible influence of nitrate from sources other than endogenous NO formation, as well as of the kinetics of nitrate in plasma. In the present study, plasma nitrate increased from 32 +/- 4 to 205 +/- 27 mumol/l (mean +/- SE) following intake of nitrate-rich food. It dropped during the intake of nitrate-restricted diet and stabilized at a level of 29 +/- 1 mumol/l. The urinary excretion of nitrate during nitrate restriction was 840 +/- 146 mumol/24 h. Plasma nitrate was not affected following the intake of a gastrointestinal antibiotic drug for a period of four days. Smoking three cigarettes in succession did not affect the plasma nitrate levels significantly. The oral intake of potassium nitrate (500 mg approximately 4950 mumol) elevated plasma nitrate from 29 +/- 3 to 313 +/- 12 mumol/l within 60 min. The subsequent drop in plasma nitrate, with a t1/2 of 451 +/- 42 min, was probably a reflection of the redistribution of nitrate within the body fluids and the renal excretion of nitrate. The plasma clearance of nitrate was 30 +/- 2 ml/min/1.73 m2 BSA. The distribution volume for nitrate was 28 +/- 1% of the bodyweight (BW). We conclude that plasma nitrate can be used as an index of the endogenous formation of NO, provided that the oral intake of nitrate is restricted for at least 48 h. Due to the large distribution volume and the low clearance of the ion wide-spread, marked, and chronic changes in NO formation are required to significantly affect the levels of nitrate in samples of mixed blood.