Arginine for Top-to-Bottom Benefits
Arginine Can Improve Your Blood Pressure
It can also help with type 2 diabetes and spice up your sex
By Dr. Edward R. Rosick
estern medicine has made huge advances in just a hundred
years. Diseases such as smallpox, polio, and tuberculosis have been eradicated
or reduced to just a few isolated incidents. These days, the major health
concerns of people in our society are chronic diseases, especially the
potentially fatal ones, such as heart disease and cancer. While these diseases
do kill a great many people, there is a "silent killer" that afflicts over
50 million people in the United States and contributes to the death of almost a quarter-million of them a year.
The Silent Killer
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a common disease
in both men and women. It's estimated that 2 million new cases are diagnosed
each year in the United States. Hypertension is called the "silent killer" because it generally produces
no overt symptoms even while it causes widespread damage to the victim's
heart, brain, kidneys, and other vital organs. Although it can strike anyone at
any time of their life, it's most commonly seen in older individuals. In fact,
over 70% of American women and 50% of American men over the age of 70 have
hypertension. Other risk factors for this disease include high cholesterol
levels, smoking, obesity, and diabetes.
The heart, brain, and kidneys,
along with all other major
parts, can suffer irreparable harm
from long-term hypertension,
the "silent killer."
How High Is Too High?
What doctors measure when they place a blood pressure cuff
on your arm is the force exerted by your blood against the walls of your
arteries, in units of millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).* There are actually two
distinct pressures measured - systolic pressure (the maximum force exerted as
the heart contracts) and diastolic pressure (the minimum force exerted as the
heart relaxes between beats). Normal blood pressure is defined as a systolic
pressure of 130 mm Hg or below and a diastolic pressure of 85 mm Hg or below.
High normal is pressures of 131-139 systolic and 86-89 diastolic.
Hypertension is defined as a pressure of 140 systolic over 90 diastolic and
Blood pressure generally rises and falls throughout the day
in a cyclic rhythm and is influenced by many factors, such as exercise and
emotional stress (including that of being in a doctor's office). To get a good
idea of what your blood pressure really is, it's necessary to make numerous
measurements at different times and average them.
What Causes High Blood Pressure?
Most cases of high blood pressure have no obvious medical
cause and are referred to as essential, or primary, hypertension. Although
doctors still don't know what causes this most common type of hypertension,
current research indicates that a complex interaction between genetic,
environmental, and other variables is a significant factor. Secondary
hypertension, which is much less common, is high blood pressure caused by known
medical conditions, such as kidney disease, pregnancy, and sleep apnea.
Hypertension Can Do Great Damage
It may seem as though a somewhat elevated blood pressure
shouldn't be that big a deal - and this is true when the condition lasts for
only a few months, as in pregnancy-induced hypertension. The real problem arises
when blood pressure is elevated over a period of years or decades. Over such a
time span, hypertension can cause significant damage to blood vessels that
supply life-giving oxygen and nutrients to all parts of the body. The heart,
brain, and kidneys, along with all other major body parts, can suffer
irreparable harm from long-term hypertension.
"The present study indicates that
increase in dietary L-arginine
intake had significant
effects in a group of
It's important to remember that an unhealthy elevation in
just one of the two pressures (systolic or diastolic) can have disastrous
long-term health consequences. Isolated high systolic pressure, which is the
most common form of high blood pressure in older adults, is thought by many to
be a significant indicator of heart attacks and strokes in people middle-aged
and older. Isolated high diastolic pressure is a strong risk factor for heart
attacks and strokes, especially in younger adults.
Hypertension Is Big Business
With so many people having hypertension, the drug companies
have introduced a plethora of medications to control it. Studies have shown that
many of the most heavily prescribed medications in the United States are antihypertensives. With drug costs rising at least 12% per year since 1993,
patients, especially the elderly, can end up spending thousands of dollars a
year on prescription drugs to control their blood pressure. While the majority
of these drugs (including diuretics, calcium channel blockers, and ACE
inhibitors) work well, they can have troublesome to potentially deadly side
effects, including hyperglycemia (high blood glucose), tinnitus (constant
ringing or buzzing in the ears), kidney damage, and heart failure.
Hypertension Can Be Controlled Naturally
For those who hesitate to use antihypertensive drugs for
whatever reason, nondrug strategies may significantly help in controlling high
blood pressure. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet is now
recommended as a first-line approach in managing the disease. The DASH diet is
high in fruits, vegetables, and other nutritious foods that are rich in
potassium, calcium, and magnesium. People following the DASH diet are encouraged
to decrease their saturated fats and replace them with foods that are high in
monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids.
Other natural ways to control hypertension include not
smoking (excellent advice for everyone!), obesity control, and salt
restriction - the current recommendation is for people with hypertension to
limit their salt intake to 2400 mg (about 1 teaspoon) per day.
Arginine - The Source of Nitric Oxide
Another natural way to help improve blood pressure is with
nutritional supplements. Arginine, an amino acid that is vitally important for
overall good health, may be a potent weapon in the fight against hypertension.
Besides playing a positive role in blood pressure control, arginine
(technically, L-arginine, but the L can be taken for granted) can also be
helpful in a variety of other conditions, including type 2 diabetes and sexual
dysfunction in both women and men.
So how does arginine work its wonders? The answer lies in
its ability to produce nitric oxide (NO), a simple gas made up of nitrogen and
oxygen that performs some amazing feats in the human body. In fact, NO is such
an important molecule that the 1998 Nobel Prize in Medicine was given to three
scientists for their pioneering research on its role in human physiology.*
Nitric oxide penetrates and crosses the membranes of almost
all cells in the body, and it helps regulate many cellular functions. It is even
involved in memory function. In blood vessels, NO is vitally important because
it regulates the tone of the endothelium, the layer of smooth cells that line
the inside of the vessels. If these endothelial cells become dysfunctional, they
can cause spasms or constrictions of the blood vessels that can then lead to
Arginine Reduces Blood Pressure in Healthy Adults
More and more studies are being published showing the
beneficial effects of arginine supplementation on blood pressure. A recent study
in Italy examined blood pressure changes among six healthy male volunteers who were
placed on three different diets. The first diet consisted of foods that
contained 3 to 4 grams of arginine per day. The second diet was high in arginine-rich
foods (nuts and legumes), so that these volunteers consumed about 10 grams of
arginine daily. The third diet was the same as the first, except for the
addition of 10 grams of supplemental arginine daily.
After only one week, the men on both diets 2 and 3
registered significant decreases in blood pressure compared to those on diet 1.
Interestingly, a statistically significant reduction in blood glucose (blood
sugar) was also seen in the men on diet 2 or diet 3. Although the authors
readily admit that the study had serious limitations (the short duration and the
small number of subjects), they concluded that "the present study indicates
that an approximately two-fold increase in dietary L-arginine intake had
significant hemodynamic and metabolic effects in a group of healthy men."
Arginine Reduces Blood Pressure in Diabetics
People who suffer from diabetes have an increased risk for
developing coronary artery disease, of which high blood pressure is often a
significant component. Scientists are now looking at how arginine might help
people with diabetes, in terms of both reducing their blood pressure and helping
their bodies use insulin more efficiently.
A recent study examined the effects on blood pressure when
arginine was given to six patients with type 2 (age-related) diabetes and
hypertension. They received 3 grams of arginine every hour for 10 hours on
either day 2 or day 3 of the study. On both of these days, their blood pressure
was monitored for the same 10 hours. The results showed that the patients'
systolic and diastolic pressures were significantly reduced only 2 hours after
they started taking arginine.
A recent study showed that
(9 grams daily) may help people
with type 2 diabetes
glucose more efficiently by
improving their insulin sensitivity.
As with the previously mentioned study, this one was small
and needs to be reproduced on a larger scale before any firm conclusions can be
drawn. However, since many scientists believe that endothelial dysfunction in
the blood vessels is one of the reasons why diabetes is associated with a higher
risk for cardiovascular disease, taking supplemental arginine, with its known
beneficial effects on endothelial cells, seems to make sense.
|Arginine Gets to the Bottom of Things
A relatively common but embarrassing condition is anal
fissures. These are generally small but painful tears in the anus. Although
their origin is unknown, it is thought that they may be caused by poor blood
flow to that sensitive area. Topical glyceryl trinitrate has generally been used
to treat anal fissures, but up to 60% of people using this remedy report
headaches, which tend to cause a significant degree of noncompliance and
consequent treatment failure.
A new study has examined the feasibility of using a topical
arginine gel to relax the internal anal sphincter and increase the blood flow to
that area. This placebo-controlled trial involved 25 men and women, aged
20-51 years, who suffered from anal fissures. The results were impressive:
within only 5 minutes of being treated, there was a significant drop in the
maximum anal resting pressure, and the decrease lasted for 2 hours. (How was
this measured? Don't ask.) Just as importantly, there were no side effects
associated with the use of topical arginine.
Having anal fissures may cause people to be the butt of
jokes, but topical arginine may be just the thing to put an end to the pain in
N, Zimmerman E, Briel JW, et al. Topical L-arginine gel lowers resting anal
pressure. Dis Colon Rectum 2002;45:1332-6.
Arginine Improves Insulin Sensitivity
One of the main physiological problems in type 2 diabetes
is that the body's cells become increasingly resistant to the action of
insulin. This is the hormone that helps cells take in glucose (the "fuel"
the body needs to stay alive) from the blood. If insulin resistance develops,
glucose is not transported into the cells as efficiently as it should be, and it
builds up in the blood. That is why people with diabetes are often said to have
high blood sugar - and it must be controlled. A recent study showed that
arginine supplementation (9 grams daily) may help people with type 2 diabetes
utilize glucose more efficiently by improving their insulin sensitivity.
Arginine - Good for Sex!
Besides helping to control hypertension, arginine can also
give a boost to one's sex life. Nitric oxide produced from arginine increases
blood flow to the penis in men and to the clitoris in women. Because of this,
men who take arginine often have stronger, firmer erections, while women can
gain increased clitoral sensitivity. When you put these two together (so to
speak), you can see why almost all major sexual supplements on the market today
contain a hefty dose of arginine.
Arginine Helps Keep the Pressure Down
As our population grows ever older, conditions such as
heart disease, cancer, and hypertension will affect more and more people.
Fortunately, through a nutritious diet, regular exercise, and supplements such
as arginine, there are natural, side-effect-free ways to stay in good physical
shape and keep the pressures of life down.
- Calvert, JF. Cardiovascular disease and hypertension.
Clinics Fam Pract 2001;3(4):733-56.
- Siani A, Pagano E, Iacone R, et al. Blood pressure and
metabolic changes during dietary L-arginine supplementation in humans. Am J
- Huynh NT, Tayek JA. Oral arginine reduces systemic blood
pressure in type 2 diabetes: its potential role in nitric oxide generation. J Am
Coll Nutr 2002;5:422-7.
- Piatti P, Monti LD, Vilsecchi G, et al. Long-term oral
L-arginine administration improves peripheral and hepatic insulin sensitivity in
type 2 diabetic patients. Diab Care 2001;24:875-80.
Dr. Rosick is an attending physician and clinical assistant
professor of medicine at Pennsylvania State University, where he specializes in preventive and alternative medicine. He also holds a
master's degree in healthcare administration.