Western medicine has made huge advances with diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis being eradicated or reduced to a few isolated instances. These days, the diseases that are prevalent include heart disease and high blood pressure (hypertension) often referred to as the “silent killer”. For over two decades we have known that the amino acid L-Arginine plays a vital role in protecting the body against cardiovascular disease. Arginine promotes efficient blood flow and hence improves cardiovascular function. There are many scientific studies that demonstrate arginine’s role in the protection of numerous diseases including possibly helping to slow down the ageing process.
So what exactly is L-Arginine?
L-Arginine (arginine) is an essential amino acid that has multiple benefits to the body. It cannot be manufactured by the body in sufficient amounts which means that it has to obtained from foods or by supplementation. Amino acids are building blocks for the body and are required for the manufacture of protein. The sequence of amino acids determines the type of protein and its structural uses.
But what makes L-Arginine so important?
Whilst arginine is one of the essential amino acids required to manufacture protein, what makes arginine very important is that it is a precursor to the nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is a soluble, highly reactive gas molecule that is used to communicate with other cells within our body. It is produced in certain animal and plant cells from the amino acid arginine. The many roles of nitric oxide are so impressive that it was referred to as “Molecule of the Year” by Science Magazine in 1992 followed by the 1998 Nobel Prize in Medicine for its discovery as a signalling molecule in the cardiovascular system.
Nitric oxide, an environment pollutant, is now considered one of the most important molecules in the human body. Arginine’s health benefits are mostly linked to it because arginine is a precursor to nitric oxide. Arginine is the only known nutritional compound available to the smooth cells, called endothelial cells, which line the inside of blood vessels in order to produce nitric oxide. If these cells become dysfunctional due to a reduction of nitric oxide or due to arginine deficiency leading to lower nitric oxide levels, then this can cause spasms or constriction of blood vessels leading to possible cardiovascular concerns.
How important is Nitric oxide?
Most people will not have heard of nitric oxide however scientific research has demonstrated that nitric oxide influences the function of the heart, kidneys, lungs, liver and stomach. Our circulatory system uses nitric oxide to control the flow of blood to every part of our body by relaxing and dilating the blood vessels ensuring that every tissue in our body gets adequate oxygen and nutrients vital for their individual function. Such is the importance of nitric oxide within our bodies.
Nitric oxide and cardiovascular health
The cardiovascular system plays a vital role in every function carried out within our body, from major organs right down to the individual cells. If the cardiovascular system is compromised, for example if the blood vessels become constricted or if plaque builds up, then one is a prime candidate for a heart attack or stroke. Whilst most people associate cardiovascular disease as having had a heart attack, in reality cardiovascular disease covers a much wider scope of serious health problems, and a heart attack is just one of them. I am briefly going to explain the role of nitric oxide with some of the common forms of cardiovascular disease.
High Blood Pressure – nitric oxide can help to relax the smooth muscle of the blood vessels. This results in the dilation of these blood vessels and allows the blood to flow easily through them thus helping to maintain blood pressure within the normal levels.
Atherosclerosis (hardened arteries) - during your youth, the blood vessels around the heart are flexible. As we age, the blood vessels gradually thicken and lose some of their elasticity and at the same time fatty deposits (plaque) build-up on the arterial walls. This is termed atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries resulting in impeded blood flow not only to the heart but also to all the other parts of the body. When the body is producing sufficient nitric oxide, plaque formation and atherosclerosis are less likely to occur.
Heart attack – a blood clot in the arteries of the heart can starve the heart muscle tissue of oxygen resulting in a heart attack. Other causal factors for this can be plaque formation and/or a sudden spasm of an artery that impedes blood flow. In all cases, a constant level of nitric oxide may be of great value for preventative purposes since it may help prevent the formation of clots, dilates blood vessels and prevents the deposition of plaque onto the arterial walls.
Studies indicate that arginine helps your cells to produce more nitric oxide which helps to promote optimal blood flow. Unfortunately nitric oxide signalling declines as part of our ageing process. A healthy adult produces sufficient arginine for overall health but by the time you reach your 50’s, deficiency is very likely and dietary intake becomes very important.
It is clear from the above that increasing arginine levels through diet or supplementation may be of great value in offering some degree of protection against cardiovascular concerns due to the promotion of nitric oxide. Obviously the lifestyle choices we make are also important in the protection against cardiovascular disease.
Other Benefits of Arginine
Good circulation to all the tissues and organs in our bodies is critical for their optimal function. Since arginine enhances nitric oxide production, it is not surprising that arginine has many other health benefits and I have highlighted just some of its benefits below.
- Arginine is required to produce nitric oxide which aside from its cardioprotective properties also is a potent neurotransmitter. Adequate levels of arginine will therefore improve the function of the nervous system and may be of great benefit in helping the body’s response to stress.
- Since nitric oxide improves nerve transmission, the use of arginine is important for brain function. It may aid mental concentration and be of value in protecting the body against age-related cognitive issues. Additionally, arginine also helps to increase L-glutamate, an energy source for the brain.
- Arginine stimulates the pituitary gland to produce more Human Growth Hormone (HGH). Growth Hormone has a wide impact on our bodies but overall optimal levels of HGH delay ageing.
- By encouraging the production of HGH, arginine encourages skeletal muscle growth leading to the loss of fat. Many athletes take arginine not only to strengthen and boost muscle tissue but also to improve physical endurance.
- Arginine is required for the formation of sperm. Several studies have shown that men of arginine deficient diets had their sperm counts reduced by as much as 90%. Research also suggests that arginine may aid sperm motility.
- Erectile dysfunction may be addressed by the use of arginine since nitric oxide enhances blood flow to all parts of the body including the genitals.
- Arginine may be of value for those with type 2 diabetes. One of the main problems with type 2 diabetes is that the body’s cells become increasingly resistant to the action of insulin known as insulin resistance. This results in less glucose uptake by the cells and high glucose in the blood which is responsible for damaging the proteins in our bodies. A study as early as 2001 showed that arginine may help utilise glucose more efficiently by improving insulin sensitivity.
- Arginine may be of value in enhancing collagen synthesis and hence speed the recovery time of tissue injury from surgery. Arginine also appears to increase immune function which may offer potential from the risk of post-operative infections.
- Arginine helps to protect the liver by converting ammonia, a major toxin in the liver, into urea which can be easily excreted out of the body.
- Arginine deficiency has been reported as one of the reasons for hair loss.
- Arginine has a positive influence on relieving migraines due to its ability to allow blood to flow through easily into the brain allowing oxygenation and supply of vital nutrients to the brain.
There are a lot more benefits to the use of arginine and it is thought to improve bone mass and aid gastrointestinal health. Foods high in arginine include sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, seaweed, walnuts, almonds, peanuts, eggs and whey. Deficiency signs of arginine include poor wound healing, skin rashes, hair loss, muscle weakness, constipation and sluggish liver function. Since these symptoms may also be attributable to other underlying concerns, it is very hard to ascertain arginine deficiency without a blood test which in itself can be difficult to obtain. It is for this reason that I recommend the use of arginine supplements because overall arginine is very safe (see contra-indications later).
Not all L -Arginine supplements are equal
The single biggest challenge for any dietary supplement is making it available to the body in sufficient amounts. Whilst arginine is widely available as a supplement, not all arginine supplements are the same. Your body requires arginine all the time because nitric oxide is required for the circulatory system which obviously cannot stop functioning without serious consequences.
I believe that the most effective form of arginine is Arginine AKG. Arginine AKG is a compound made from combining arginine with alpha ketoglutaric acid, two important compounds used by the body to manufacture nitric oxide. This combined molecule is far more effective at producing nitric oxide than arginine alone. However, there is an additional benefit of alpha ketoglutaric acid.
Many of you will not have heard of the Krebs Cycle which is a chemical reaction in the body that converts fats, carbohydrates and proteins into usable energy. This process, which occurs within the mitochondria (energy producing structures within the cells of our body) is one of the most important cellular functions within our bodies. The use of Arginine AKG provides not only increases the production of nitric oxide but also helps to enhance energy levels quickly and safely.
Since every single process within our body depends upon the supply of nutrients, enzymes and other chemical compounds, and since this can only be achieved through optimal circulation, I think it vital that most of us should consider the use of introducing Arginine AKG into our supplemental regime.
Arginine AKG should not be taken by anyone suffering from an active herpes infection which includes herpes simplex, as in oral or genital herpes, or herpes zoster, as in shingles. If you do have any serious disease such as diabetes or coronary heart disease, please ensure that you talk to your medical advisor before taking this supplement for their guidance.
This content is not intended to replace conventional medical treatment. Any suggestions made and all herbs listed are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, condition or symptom. Personal directions and use should be provided by a clinical herbalist or other qualified healthcare practitioner.