The subject of a great deal of intense research by conventional medicine, nutritional therapists and sports scientists for at least fifty years, arginine is now regarded as one of the most important and potentially beneficial amino acids. Technically it’s known as one of the “non-essential” amino acids, but the term in this sense means only that it can be manufactured within the body and therefore need not necessarily be obtained from the daily diet.
“Non-essential” does not in any way imply that these amino acids are unimportant. Put simply, you need the full range of both essential and non-essential amino acids to form the countless proteins from which your body is largely made. Increasingly, however, there’s evidence that individual amino acids may have more specific functions, with increasing interest in the possibility of using supplementation with single amino acids to tackle particular conditions.
Arginine, for example, has been credited with helping the body to generate crucially important hormones, particularly human growth hormone; with improving sexual health and function; increasing muscle mass whilst reducing body fat; reducing cholesterol; stimulating the immune system and enhancing immune system responses.
But perhaps the most important potential benefit of arginine is its effect upon the health of the cardiovascular system. There is some research evidence that doses of 6g or more daily may help reduce low density lipids (LDL), the so-called “bad cholesterol”, and that arginine may also significantly improve circulation.
Arginine is also an important precursor of nitric oxide, an important transmitter of neural nerve impulses, and a compound known to help maintain circulation in the tiny blood vessels of the brain, protecting against debilitating and possibly fatal strokes. For the immune system, arginine acts as a stimulant for the thymus gland, helping to generate the immune cells vital for tackling infection.
There is also good research to suggest that arginine may have a “protein sparing” effect, making available the maximum amount of protein for muscle growth. This has been found very useful in the treatment of those, for example the elderly, who have suffered from muscle wasting and weakness. But when coupled with arginine’s apparent potential as a fat burner, and its stimulation of the production of human growth hormone; its obvious potential as an athletic performance supplement, particularly for strength and power athletes and body builders, has of course been the cause of great excitement in these communities. Arginine is also an important precursor for the body’s manufacture of creatine, known as the “natural steroid” for its muscle and strength building potentiality.
The US Food and Nutrition Board has not prescribed a Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for arginine, probably adhering to the traditional view that a diet adequate in protein will almost by definition provide sufficient amino acids. It is certainly true that outright deficiencies of arginine are rarely if ever seen in individuals whose diet contains enough protein, which means most of us in the affluent West. And it is also true that requirements for arginine and other individual amino acids vary widely between individuals, making the establishment of a meaningful RDA even more difficult than usual. However, good sources of arginine in the diet include dairy products and meat, particularly beef, pork, chicken and turkey. Wheatgerm, grains, nuts, seafood and even chocolate may also help boost arginine intake. An increase in the consumption of any of these, particularly the animal proteins, will also of course increase the intake of arginine, and a diet including normal quantities of these foods will usually prevent deficiencies.
It will not necessarily, however, be enough to provide the major therapeutic benefits of arginine, for which most practitioners agree free-form supplementation is required in quantities of at least several grams a day, preferably taken on an empty stomach. Although it is nomally held that the maximum benefits of arginine are obtained when it is taken in isolation, an exception is in seeking to boost the immune system, when it seems that taking arginine together with lysine, another amino acid, may greatly enhance its effects.
As with other amino acids, supplementation with arginine is generally very safe and no ill effects, other than perhaps relatively minor gastric upsets, should be observed even at many times the recommended therapeutic doses. But important exceptions to this are pregnant women and new mothers, people suffering from herpes and similar infections, and sufferers from liver or kidney disease. If arginine is taken at all by these groups, it should only be with medical advice.
In any event, supplementation with single amino acids always carries the risk of creating biochemical imbalances within the body and should not be undertaken indefinitely without qualified supervision. Body builders and strength and power athletes may, for example, find it beneficial to use arginine during the “bulk up” phase of the training cycle, thereafter reverting to a more balanced program of supplementation.
Another word of caution is that as well as its benefits, the nitric oxide produced by arginine is also a free radical with potentially harmful ageing and degenerative effects on the body’s cells. This oxidative action does not remove the possible benefits of taking arginine, but it does mean that any supplement program should be combined with a good range of anti-oxidants, including coenzyme Q10 and lipoic acid. And for best results, these should always be taken with comprehensive multi-vitamin and multi-mineral supplements.