Arginine's Cornucopia of Benefits

ome people just get better breaks than others: they're beautiful, smart, healthy, rich, and famous. And some amino acids are endowed with more biological benefits than others. In this arena, arginine is the champ. We've seen how it spawns the neurotransmitter nitric oxide, which plays such a vital role in cardiovascular health, kidney health, and other aspects of our well-being, such as having sex (speaking of which, it is well known that arginine also increases sperm count and sperm motility). Increased nitric oxide production due to supplementation with arginine is also responsible for an improvement in insulin sensitivity in diabetics.11 It is important to state that there is a cautionary note with regard to diabetics taking arginine and that for a number of reasons, supplementary arginine should not be taken except under the guidance of a medical professional.

In the central nervous system, nitric oxide is essential for learning processes that take place in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that is responsible for the regulation and coordination of complex voluntary muscular movements as well as the maintenance of posture and balance. Without the arginine needed to produce the nitric oxide our brains demand, we would become stumblebums, falling down and breaking our hips, or worse.

There is also evidence that nitric oxide enhances cognitive functions throughout the brain and that it may be necessary for long-term potentiation, the mechanism involved in long-term memory. It is even thought to be an important factor in our sense of smell and our ability to identify different scents.

ARGININE STIMULATES THE RELEASE OF GROWTH HORMONE
We've seen that arginine also plays a key role in stimulating the release of growth hormone by the pituitary gland. After adolescence and young adulthood, natural production of growth hormone declines dramatically as we age. That's a pity, because, although we no longer need it to grow any taller, its very lack in the concentrations characteristic of our youth may be associated with many of the "inevitable" processes of aging.

For example, the healing of wounds, whether of flesh or bone, takes ever longer as we age, but there is strong evidence that growth hormone accelerates the healing process. And speaking of flesh, we would all probably like to see more of ours as muscle and less of it as fat - a goal that was easily achievable through exercise when our bodies were still young. As we age, however, it becomes ever more difficult - eventually almost impossible - to build muscle mass, or even maintain it. But here too, growth hormone, via arginine supplementation, can help us do much better in maintaining and even improving our strength and muscle-to-fat ratio than Mother Nature, in one of her stingier moods, provided for.

Even the "container" that keeps us from leaking all over the place - our skin - benefits from increased levels of growth hormone, which stimulates the production of elastin. This protein is the principal component of the elastic fibers that keep our skin, and even our arteries, well-toned and springy. The arteries also benefit from growth hormone's tendency to counteract atherosclerosis. And as if that weren't enough, nitric oxide does too. If arginine had a motto, it could be, "With me you get GH and NO. If one doesn't help you, the other will."

ARGININE BOOSTS IMMUNE FUNCTION
In a recent meta-analysis of 12 randomized, controlled studies, it was shown that critically ill patients who were being fed enterally (i.e., directly into their intestines) fared significantly better when the enteral "feeds" (yes, that's what they call them) were supplemented with an immunonutritional mixture of arginine, omega-3 fatty acids, and nucleotides (the building blocks of nucleic acids).12

The meta-analysis encompassed a total of 1482 patients. Surprisingly, the immune feeds had no effect on mortality, but it was found that the patients who received them had a one-third-lower rate of infection than those on standard feeds, and they spent 2.6 fewer days on ventilators and 2.9 fewer days in the hospital, on average.

One cannot say what proportion of these effects was due to the arginine, but its inclusion in the formulation to begin with speaks to the recognition of its immune-enhancing properties. These properties may be due in part to the large-scale production of nitric oxide in white blood cells when the body is under attack by invading bacteria or parasites, toward which the NO acts in its traditional chemical role of poison.

All in all, one would have to be pretty jaded not to be impressed by the abundance of ways in which arginine, a simple organic compound with the formula C6H14N4O2, has staked its claim to being the most versatile of the amino acids and one of the most important nutrients in the natural world. So extraordinary is this molecule - with a proverbial Niagara of benefits for health, memory, well-being, sexual and physical enhancement, immune boosting, and more - that no red-blooded man or woman should be without it.

Caution:
Do not take any arginine product if you have diabetes,
because growth hormone can sometimes block the
effects of insulin. And do not take arginine if you have
cancer, because it is possible that growth hormone can
increase the rate of growth of all tissues, including those
that are cancerous. Finally, do not take arginine
if you have ocular or brain herpes, because
it can increase replication of the virus if
the latter is activated.

References

  1. Visek WJ. Arginine needs, physiological state, and usual diets. J Nutr 1986;116:36-46.
  2. Watanabe G, Tomiyama H, Doba N. Effects of oral administration of L-arginine on renal function in patients with heart failure. J Hypertens 2000 Feb;18(2):229-34.
  3. Koifman B, Wollman Y, Bogomolny N, Chernichowsky T, Finkelstein A, Peer G, Scherez J, Blum M, Laniado S, Iaina A, et al. Improvement of cardiac performance by intravenous infusion of l-arginine in patients with moderate congestive heart failure. J Am Coll Cardiol 1995 Nov 1;26(5):1251-6.
  4. Rector TS, Bank AJ, Mullen KA, Tschumperlin LK, Sih R, Pillai K, Kubo SH. Randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of supplemental oral L-arginine in patients with heart failure. Circulation 1996 Jun 15;93(12):2135-41.
  5. Bachmann S, Mundel P. Nitric oxide in the kidney: synthesis, localization, and function. Am J Kidney Dis 1994 Jul;24(1):112-29.
  6. Aiello S, Remuzzi G, Noris M. Nitric oxide/endothelin balance after nephron reduction. Kidney Int Suppl 1998 Apr;65:S63-7.
  7. Drexler H. Endothelial dysfunction: clinical implications. Prog Cardiovasc Dis 1997 Jan-Feb;39(4):287-324.
  8. Hambrecht R, Hilbrich L, Erbs S, Gielen S, Fiehn E, Schoene N, Schuler G. Correction of endothelial dysfunction in chronic heart failure: additional effects of exercise training and oral L-arginine supplementation. J Am Coll Cardiol 2000;35(3):706-13.
  9. Rector TS, Bunk AJ, Mullen KA et al. Randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of supplemental oral L-arginine in patients with heart failure. Circ 1996;93:2135-41.
  10. Hambrecht R, Fiehn E, Weigl C, et al. Regular physical exercise corrects endothelial dysfunction and improves exercise capacity in patients with chronic heart failure. Circ 1998;98:2709-15.
  11. Wascher et al. Effects of low-dose L-arginine on insulin-mediated vasodilation and insulin sensitivity. Eur J Clin Invest 1997;27:690-5.
  12. Beale RJ, Bryg DJ, Bihari DJ. Immunonutrition in the critically ill: a systematic review of clinical outcome. Crit Care Med 1999 Dec;27(12):2799-805.

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