Arginine: Lower Your Blood Pressure With This
Looking for a boost in the gym – or in the bedroom?
Then you’ve probably considered this supplement. It’s just one of hundreds you’ll find lining the shelves of your local health food store. And like those, it promises to help you build muscle, improve your athletic performance, and even jumpstart a flagging sex life.
Sound too good to be true?
Well, it’s still too early to tell.
See, this supplement might indeed have some real benefits – and they’re not just limited to superficial concerns. Instead, limited evidence suggests that it holds promise for treating certain cardiovascular issues, as well as migraine headaches.
But it isn’t right – or safe – for everyone.
A Versatile Molecule…
Arginine (also known as L-arginine) is an amino acid, which is one of the building blocks of protein. Considered one of the body’s most versatile molecules in the human body, it also plays a part in certain regulatory cycles and can be converted into other molecules, such as creatine.
And that’s not all.
Arginine acts as a vasodilator, which means that it can widen blood vessels. That’s important, because a number of diseases and conditions involve constricted or narrowed blood vessels, including cardiovascular disease, heart failure, erectile dysfunction, migraine headaches, and peripheral vascular disease, a condition that restricts blood flow to the legs and makes walking painful.
We first learned about arginine in 1886, when a Swiss chemist isolated this amino acid from a seedling of the plant lupine, which is a member of the legume (bean) family.
Yet the study of arginine didn’t really advance much until the 1930s. That’s when scientists discovered that it is involved in the production of nitric oxide, a molecule that has major cardio-protective effects.
Pretty soon, researchers began investigating the use of supplemental arginine in heart disease and other conditions where blood vessels are constricted.
At the same time, supplement manufacturers seized on arginine’s role in protein creation and its ability to convert to creatine. Both of these mechanisms suggest that arginine might improve athletic performance and help users build muscle strength, although there’s not a lot of evidence to support such claims.
So do arginine supplements really work? Or is the hype worth little more than a hill of beans?
Let’s take a closer look at the studies.
Benefits for Blood Vessels…
On paper, it makes a lot of sense that arginine could help protect the heart and blood vessels. See, by converting to nitric oxide and widening blood vessels, this amino acid allows blood to flow more freely. That, in turn, should lead to a lower risk of high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, peripheral vascular disease, heart attacks, and other cardiovascular problems.1,2,3,4
But this hasn’t always been the case in clinical studies.
True, there’s some good research to support arginine’s cardiovascular benefits. For example, one recent analysis of 11 previously published, randomized, controlled studies of arginine looked at the supplement’s effects on blood pressure. The authors found that, compared to a placebo, arginine lowered systolic blood pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading) by 5.39 mm Hg and diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) by 2.66 mm Hg.5
Other studies have focused on the role of arginine in the treatment of congestive heart failure, a condition in which the heart cannot pump enough oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. Congestive heart failure is typically caused by coronary artery disease – narrowing of the body’s blood vessels. Some research suggests that, when added to conventional treatment, arginine supplements appear to improve some aspects of congestive heart failure, although they haven’t consistently had beneficial results.1,2,3,4
Arginine may also help people with angina, or chest pain caused by cardiovascular disease. Some studies show that people with angina who take arginine have decreased symptoms, improved ability to exercise, and a higher quality of life than those who don’t take this supplement. However, there’s little good objective evidence to demonstrate that arginine actually widens blood vessels or increases nitric oxide in this condition.1,2,3,4
Some small studies have found that arginine may increase the amount of time that people with peripheral vascular disease can walk without pain, although more research is needed.1,2,3,4
The Heart of the Matter…
That said, there’s one cardiovascular concern that arginine doesn’t appear to help – and just might harm: heart attacks.
Research has found that supplemental arginine doesn’t reduce the stiffness of blood vessels or increase ejection fraction, a measure of how well the heart pumps blood in people who have had a recent heart attack (within about a month of the incident). Not only that, but there’s also concern that arginine could worsen the problem – and even increase the risk of death in heart attack patients. It doesn’t appear to reduce the risk of heart attack, either.6,13,14
While research continues, investigators have uncovered some additional potential uses for arginine. Some studies have shown that high doses of supplemental arginine (5 grams daily) improve men’s subjective assessment of their erectile dysfunction symptoms, although lower doses may not be as effective. 10,11
There’s also evidence that arginine may help ease the pain of migraine headaches when combined with ibuprofen, but it’s not clear how effective the supplement is at treating migraines on its own.8
And some research suggests that arginine may indeed improve exercise capacity – at least in older people. However, other studies have found that arginine has no effect on body composition or aerobic capacity in younger people. 7,9,12
As for those glowing claims that arginine can help build muscles and improve performance?
That remains to be seen.
Arginine is readily available from our diet: It’s found in a wide variety of foods, including fish, red meat, poultry, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and dairy products. This makes it near impossible to develop a deficiency of arginine.
Supplements may be beneficial if you have one of the conditions described here, such as high blood pressure, angina, congestive heart failure, peripheral vascular disease, erectile dysfunction, or migraines. But they shouldn’t take the place of any conventional medicine you take already. We just don’t know enough about arginine yet to say how effective it is.
Nor is its safety certain.
The existing research suggests that arginine is safe when used in the short-term at appropriate doses in people who have not had a heart attack or are not at immediate risk for one. Studies show that doses of 3 to 20 grams daily (in divided doses and on an empty stomach) are safe for 3 months. But arginine has not been studied for longer-term use.
Not everyone should take arginine. Aside from heart attack survivors, you shouldn’t take arginine supplements if you have low blood pressure (hypotension), allergies or asthma (since arginine may increase airway inflammation), or cirrhosis, or if you take anti-hypertensive drugs or supplements, nitrates, or Viagra.
Arginine can cause side effects such as abdominal pain and bloating, airway inflammation, low blood pressure, diarrhea, and gout. Some people may also develop an allergic reaction to it.
If you have high blood pressure, migraines, erectile dysfunction, or a cardiovascular concern other than heart attacks, you might want to add arginine to your supplement regimen, but you should discuss it first with your doctor to make sure it doesn’t interact with other medications you take.
Otherwise, it won’t hurt to add more arginine-rich foods to your diet. They’re safe to eat and just might improve your health.
And remember, keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.
5Dong JY, Qin LQ, Zhang Z, et al. Effect of oral L-arginine supplementation on blood pressure: a meta-analysis of randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials. Am Heart J. 2011 Dec;162(6):959-65.
6Sun T, Zhou WB, Luo XP, et al. Oral L-arginine supplementation in acute myocardial infarction therapy: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Clin Cardiol. 2009 Nov;32(11):649-52.
7Camic CL, Housh TJ, Zuniga JM, et al. Effects of arginine-based supplements on the physical working capacity at the fatigue threshold. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 May;24(5):1306-12.
8Delli Pizzi S, Mantini D, Ferretti A, et al. Pharmacological functional MRI assessment of the effect of ibuprofen-arginine in painful conditions. Int J Immunopathol Pharmacol. 2010 Jul-Sep;23(3):927-35.
9Zajac A, Poprzecki S, Zebrowska A, et al. Arginine and ornithine supplementation increases growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor-1 serum levels after heavy-resistance exercise in strength-trained athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Apr;24(4):1082-90.
10Kernohan AF, McIntyre M, Hughes DM, et al. An oral yohimbine/L-arginine combination (NMI 861) for the treatment of male erectile dysfunction: a pharmacokinetic, pharmacodynamic and interaction study with intravenous nitroglycerine in healthy male subjects. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2005 Jan;59(1):85-93.
11Lebret T, Hervé JM, Gorny P, et al. Efficacy and safety of a novel combination of L-arginine glutamate and yohimbine hydrochloride: a new oral therapy for erectile dysfunction. Eur Urol. 2002 Jun;41(6):608-13; discussion 613.
12Alvares TS, Conte CA, Paschoalin VM, et al. Acute l-arginine supplementation increases muscle blood volume but not strength performance. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2012 Feb;37(1):115-26.
13Schulman SP, Becker LC, Kass DA, et al. L-arginine therapy in acute myocardial infarction: the Vascular Interaction With Age in Myocardial Infarction (VINTAGE MI) randomized clinical trial. JAMA. 2006 Jan 4;295(1):58-64.
14Bednarz B, Jaxa-Chamiec T, Maciejewski P, et al. Efficacy and safety of oral l-arginine in acute myocardial infarction. Results of the multicenter, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled ARAMI pilot trial. Kardiol Pol. 2005 May;62(5):421-7.
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