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L-Arginine: Benefits and Uses of This Amino Acid

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  • L-arginine is a type of amino acid that serves as a precursor to nitric oxide (NO), which is an important compound for maintaining the health of your cardiovascular, immune and other body systems
  • While L-arginine is produced by the human body, it may be found in some foods as well, such as pumpkin seeds, turkey, chicken and beef
  • Studies have linked L-arginine to the alleviation of numerous conditions, such as erectile dysfunction and Parkinson’s disease

The rising popularity of amino acid supplements has become apparent in recent years as more and more people find out about the numerous health benefits they can provide.1

One of these amino acids is L-arginine. Usually taken in capsule form, L-arginine may assist in the maintenance of numerous body processes, such as cardiovascular function, protein synthesis and exercise capacity, especially in heart transplant patients.2 Read on to learn more about this supplement and why it would be worthwhile to incorporate it into your diet.

What Is L-Arginine?

L-arginine, or simply arginine, is a type of amino acid that serves as a precursor to a handful of metabolites like nitric oxide, spermine and ornithine, which are needed by numerous systems. These metabolites are important for blood vessel health, free radical scavenging and nitrogen excretion, respectively.3,4

But the effects of L-arginine on nitric oxide production in the body does not stop there, as it has also been found to enhance protein synthesis, muscle development and immune function.5,6

As a semi-essential amino acid, L-arginine can be produced by your body, but may still need to be supplemented or sourced from your diet if your reserves are lacking. This deficiency may be caused by a handful of factors, such as a diet that is poor in L-arginine, slow arginine synthesis and starvation. Some possible effects of L-arginine deficiency include immune cell and endothelial dysfunction, pulmonary hypertension and impaired antitumor response.7

The good news is that keeping adequate levels of this amino acid is not a grueling task, as long as you eat a well-balanced diet. L-arginine is found in a handful of food products, in addition to the supplements available in the market today.

L-Arginine Sources You Can Add to Your Diet

In the standard Western diet, people ingest approximately 5 grams of L-arginine daily.8 However, this amount may vary from person to person, depending on their food choices and overall lifestyle. In some cases, the body is unable to provide itself with sufficient levels. You can remedy this by regularly consuming the following L-arginine-rich foods:9

5 Potential Health Benefits of L-Arginine

Research has shown that having sufficient amounts of this compound in your body may help with the following:

Cardiovascular function — As the sole substrate of nitric oxide, arginine is essential in the maintenance of nerve and heart health. In hypertensive patients, arginine may assist in regulating vascular hemostasis.10

Immune function — A meta-analysis from the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that patients given L-arginine had improved T-cell proliferation and an overall lower incidence of immune complications compared to patients in the control groups. This is due to L-arginine's possible effect on immune response and inflammation.11

Antiaging — The numerous active components of L-arginine supplements have been observed to have slowing effects on aging because of its ability to promote the production of hormones, structural proteins and other biological compounds that become arrested during aging.12

Exercise metabolism — A 2007 study from Current Opinion on Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care found that L-arginine plays an important role in helping improve insulin sensitivity and capillary growth in muscles in conjunction with exercise.13

AnxietyIn a 2005 study from the journal of Nutritional Neuroscience, researchers note that L-arginine, when prescribed with L-lysine, may help reduce anxiety in individuals exposed to psychosocial stress. The compounds work by regulating hormone production during stress, which reduces the anxiety symptoms.14

This is backed by 2007 research published in the journal Biomedical Research wherein L-arginine and L-lysine were given to healthy patients. Oral administration showed both helped lower anxiety and cortisol levels in humans.15

Furthermore, people take L-arginine supplements to improve other conditions, including angina. A 2009 study from the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity found that L-arginine may have a protective effect on ischemic myocardial syndromes as it triggers the dilation of blood vessels through nitric oxide, promoting blood flow into the myocardium.16

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Studies on L-Arginine Show the Other Ways It May Help Boost Your Well-Being

L-arginine has been the subject of numerous scientific studies that aim to uncover the possible effects it has on important body mechanisms, including nitric oxide synthesis, T-cell metabolism and coagulation.17

For example, due to its effect on NO, L-arginine is believed to help hinder the progression of Parkinson’s disease. A 2015 study from the Iranian Journal of Neurology stated that L-arginine supplementation may have a neuroprotective effect on Parkinson’s patients, slowing down or arresting neurodegeneration, which is one of the hallmark complications of this disease.18

A 2003 study from the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy found that L-arginine may help with erectile dysfunction when taken with Pycnogenol, an antioxidant compound. After a month of trial, about 80% of patients were observed to have restored sexual function.19 Conversely, a 1999 study showed that a three-times-a-day supplementation of arginine provided little to no effect on erectile dysfunction, with only 17% of the patients reporting significant improvements.20

In terms of improved cardiovascular function, a 2016 study from Research in Cardiovascular Medicine showed that L-arginine supplementation helped improve biochemical factors, blood pressure and other parameters that directly affect cardiovascular disease risk.21 In aging patients with compromised endothelial function, L-arginine was also found to improve vascular capacity through nitric oxide production and hormonal augmentation.22

In a 2010 study from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, L-arginine supplementation has also been found to be supportive of exercise capacity in heart transplant patients by supporting endothelial function. Patients were divided into the L-arginine and placebo groups and subsequently given the supplements for six weeks. After the trial period, the L-arginine group was observed to have increased exercise capacity, measured through their walking distance limit.23

Watch Out for These L-Arginine Side Effects and Complications

It’s common to overlook the fact that L-arginine may also cause side effects, especially if taken in inappropriate doses, although these are often benign. Some of the side effects that you may experience with this supplement include:24

In addition, L-arginine may cause numerous complications because of its effect on the cardiovascular system, including poor blood pressure regulation during surgery, herpes flares and deaths in infants and children. Chronic use of arginine supplements may heighten the risk of death in myocardial infarction patients.25

For L-arginine supplementation during pregnancy or while breastfeeding, it’s best that you consult a health professional whether it would be appropriate for you. This will help you avoid dangerous complications that may arise from inappropriate dosages.

Optimize Your L-Arginine Levels for Better Health

As an amino acid needed for multiple body functions, it is extremely important that you keep L-arginine levels balanced. In individuals with suspected L-arginine deficiency, adding arginine-rich foods or supplementing with this amino acid may prove to be beneficial. However, note that dosage recommendations and supplementation duration should always be consulted with a health care professional first.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About L-Arginine

Q: What does L-arginine do?

A: L-arginine serves as a precursor for nitric oxide, which is an essential component for numerous body processes. It helps with the maintenance of cardiovascular health and immune function.26 It has also been found to be beneficial for anxiety and aging.27,28

Q: When do you take L-arginine?

A: For the correct timing and dosage for L-arginine supplements, it's best that you consult a health care professional. This will allow you to get recommendations especially designed for you.

Q: Q: What is arginine used for?

A: Arginine supplementation may be used to promote nitric oxide production in the body, which is essential for heart health and immune function. It can also be used to dampen symptoms of angina.29

Q: Is L-arginine safe?

A: Numerous scientific studies have found that L-arginine supplementation is safe and may yield impressive health results. But it is still important that you get your L-arginine supplements from trustworthy sources to avoid getting low-quality products. Safety precautions should also be put in place as long-term and chronic use of arginine supplements after myocardial infarction is suspected to heighten mortality.30

Q: Is L-arginine safe to take daily?

A: While L-arginine offers numerous health benefits, it is unclear whether long-term L-arginine supplementation is safe.  It is best that you consult a health care professional to make sure that you're not putting yourself in harm's way.

Q: What does L-arginine do sexually?

A: L-arginine is said to help with erectile dysfunction because of its effect on blood flow. However, the limited and conflicting studies done to verify this benefit have proven to be inconclusive.31,32

Q: Does L-arginine clean your arteries?

A: No. L-arginine helps blood vessels relax, but there is no supporting data that prove it can clean arterial deposits, which may be caused by other health conditions.

Q: Can you take too much L-arginine?

A: There is no clear indication whether you can overdose on L-arginine. It would be best that you consult with your physician before trying it, and to use this supplement in moderation to avoid any side effects or complications that may arise.

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