We all know protein is good for us, but do certain amino acids provide us with additional health benefits? This article will review the research behind arginine effects on the body, arginine health benefits for different conditions, and what to consider before taking this as a new supplement!
What is arginine?
Arginine is one of the twenty amino acids. As you may know, amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are different types of amino acids which are classified based on how essential they are to the body.
- Essential amino acids: your body can’t make these, so they are essential to get from the diet.
- Non-essential amino acids: your body can produce enough of these on its own.
- Conditionally essential amino acids: under normal circumstances, your body makes enough of these. But, certain health conditions may require more than what your body can make on its own.
In the body, arginine is considered “conditionally essential”. This basically means that the body does produce arginine on its own, but in certain circumstances it may not be able to produce as much as we need. Arginine becomes essential under conditions of extreme physical stress. Conditions requiring more arginine include hemolytic anemia, asthma, pregnancy, malabsorption, and critical illness (think burns and trauma)(1). Infants and growing children also require more arginine than the body can produce on its own.
While arginine’s main function is making proteins for the whole body to use, arginine effects on the body are widespread. It helps dilate our blood vessels so more blood (and oxygen) can flow, it detoxifies ammonia (a toxic byproduct of protein breakdown), and can be converted to glucose to provide energy for the body (2). Arginine amino acid benefits also include serving as a building block for various substances in the body such as nitric oxide and other amino acids. On average, people eat about 3.5 to 5 grams of arginine per day.
Foods that contain arginine:
Foods that contain adequate amounts of protein are generally good sources of arginine. Plus, other amino acids work together to make arginine within the body, so high-protein foods generally help increase arginine levels overall.
- Pumpkin Seeds
Arginine health benefits for your heart.
Arginine is required to make a substance called nitric oxide. In the body, nitric oxide sends a signal which tells your blood vessels to dilate. By opening the vessels more, your body can then pump blood, oxygen, and nutrients to other areas of your body. In essence, this helps your heart out because it doesn’t have to pump as crazy hard to fuel your other organs and limbs!
Improves exercise duration with heart conditions.
Fortunately, research looks hopeful for arginine amino acid benefits for your hearts, lungs, and vessels. For example, one study gave participants with heart failure supplemental arginine (9 grams) for 7 days. At the end of the study, the supplemented subjects could exercise longer than the placebo group (3). Many other studies show these same arginine health benefits of increasing exercise tolerance and oxygen delivery to people who have a history of heart problems (4, 5).
Lowers blood pressure.
Arginine effects on the body, and specifically the heart, is also connected to its effect on lowering blood pressure. A larger review of studies found that supplementing with arginine may reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressure in people with otherwise elevated levels by 3 to 5 points (6). While this may not seem like much, consider that just a 5 point reduction in blood pressure may reduce your risk of stroke by 14 percent, and risk of heart disease by 9 percent (7). Hey, we’ll take it!
The same above study also found arginine supplement benefits in pregnant women with preeclampsia (dangerous high blood pressure during pregnancy)(6). Arginine supplementation significantly reduced diastolic blood pressure in these women.
May reduce chest pain.
One of the main arginine supplement benefits is that it may decrease symptoms of chest pain (also known as angina) during exercise (11). Although, Mayo Clinic cautions against taking arginine if you’ve suffered a heart attack, because it may make the situation worse. And of course, don’t rely on arginine to eliminate and/or cure chest pain. Go to your doctor and/or the ER if any signs of chest pains occur!
Arginine supplement benefits for athletes.
Because arginine effects on the body improves exercise tolerance in heart disease, will it also help enhance exercise tolerance or duration in athletes? Many athletes take arginine as a supplement due to its potential ability to boost athletic performance.
Infusion of arginine causes a release of growth hormone from a small gland in your brain called the pituitary gland. Some research suggests that arginine supplement benefits include increasing the concentration of this growth hormone in the blood of athletes (2). But, increasing the growth hormone alone isn’t really helpful unless it can boost exercise performance, right? Unfortunately, research hasn’t yet found convincing results in using arginine to benefit exercise tolerance or duration in athletes.
Arginine is also required to make creatine. Creatine is a compound found naturally in your muscles. It helps your muscles produce energy to do work, build more muscle tissue, and improve strength. While studies have found creatinine to increase high-intensity exercise ability as well as lean body mass (8), the same cannot be said for arginine.
Unfortunately, the research for arginine supplement benefits are limited in athletic performance (so far).
Arginine amino acid benefits for wound healing.
Deep cuts, chronic wounds, or severe burns may benefit from arginine supplementation for a few reasons. First, arginine increases how much collagen the body provides to the particular injury (9). Collagen is vital for wound healing because it’s the main protein structure found in our skin and connective tissues. Arginine effects on the body’s wound healing functions also stems from its ability to lower inflammation at the site of the injury! Many studies show a reduction in inflammatory chemicals when supplemented with arginine. The third benefit of arginine for healing wounds and injuries is improved blood and oxygen flow to site so that the body’s immune system can work its magic.
Arginine and diabetes.
People with diabetes have lower levels of arginine (9). Some studies show that arginine supplements benefit and improve the structure of the blood vessels in people with diabetes. This may stem from the same arginine health benefits for heart disease, in that nitric oxide (a byproduct of arginine metabolism) allows more oxygen to the cells of the vessels. Supplemental arginine may also improve insulin sensitivity in people with diabetes. Insulin is a hormone that, among other things, helps to lower our blood sugar. By improving insulin sensitivity, our cells can more effectively respond to the insulin, thereby lowering blood sugar to normal levels (aka a GOOD thing!).
Arginine benefits for hair.
Can arginine improve the health of your hair? Some research suspects it just might! One small study found that participants reported improvement of hair growth and hardness after 1 month of unknowingly taking 5 grams per day of arginine (9). There are a few reasons why arginine may help you grow a long, strong mane. First, we now know that arginine relaxes blood vessels and improves the flow of blood, nutrients, and oxygen throughout the body. Our scalp, which is home to the base of our hair follicles, then has great blood flow and nutrients available to keep hair strong to prevent breakage. In fact, many products that advertise hair regrowth as a benefit use the arginine breakdown product, nitric oxide, in their ingredients!
Do you color your hair? Good news – the other main arginine benefit for hair is that it may protect your hair fibers against the harsh attacks of hydrogen peroxide from coloring agents (10).
Arginine supplementation is mostly deemed safe. It is available as capsules, tablets, powder, injections, or infusions in a variety of doses. Most human studies use between 6 and 30 grams per day of arginine divided into three separate doses (1). The most common side effects of arginine supplements include nausea and diarrhea at higher doses (15 to 30 grams per day)(9). Mayo Clinic recommends to avoid taking arginine supplements if you’ve had cold sores or genital herpes in the past, as too much of this amino acid can potentially trigger the virus.
Keep in mind that there still is pretty limited research on the true benefits of taking arginine supplements (we don’t want you to just have expensive pee!). Additionally, if you are inflamed, arginine can cause more harm than good. Biochemically, this amino acid can go down a positive pathway or one that creates more inflammation. CHECK WITH YOUR PROVIDER BEFORE TAKING HIGH DOSE SUPPLEMENTS OF ARGININE.
End thoughts: what are the top arginine health benefits?
Eating a varied diet with adequate amounts of protein will provide enough arginine, given you don’t fall into one of the special health conditions requiring more of this amino acid. Most of arginine health benefits revolve around it’s ability to breakdown into nitric oxide, which takes many positive actions for the body. Research on arginine supplementation is limited, but the research is strongest for it’s main benefits in lowering blood pressure, improving exercise endurance in people with heart disease, helping wounds heal faster. As always, lean to food sources first, and double check with your doctor before taking any new supplements!