There are plenty of powerful new drugs to help prevent and treat chronic health problems. But we also know that certain nutrients may help as well. Take arginine, for example. Arginine has gotten lots of attention lately for its potential heart benefits. That's important because, today, about 64 million Americans have some form of cardiovascular disease.
Deficiencies of arginine are rare. It's abundant in many different types of foods, and your body can also make it. Arginine-rich foods include red meat, fish, poultry, wheat germ, grains, nuts and seeds, and dairy products. But what does arginine do for the heart, and are there potential side effects?
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Arginine, also known as L-arginine, is involved in a number of different functions in the body. They include
Helping the kidneys remove waste products from the body
Maintaining immune and hormone function
As a natural dietary supplement, arginine has garnered particular attention for its possible heart benefits.
What Are Arginine's Heart Benefits?
In the body, the amino acid arginine changes into nitric oxide (NO). Nitric oxide is a powerful neurotransmitter that helps blood vessels relax and also improves circulation.
Some evidence shows that arginine may help improve blood flow in the arteries of the heart. That may improve symptoms of clogged arteries, chest pain or angina, and coronary artery disease. However, there currently is no data on how the long-term use of arginine affects cholesterol or heart health.
Since arginine may help arteries relax and improve blood flow, it may also help with erectile dysfunction.
There are other potential health benefits with arginine, such as possible reduction of blood pressure in some people and improved walking distance in patients with intermittent leg cramping and weakness known as intermittent claudication. However, the scientific studies are not conclusive enough for experts to make any firm recommendations.
Not all studies on arginine have been positive. A 2006 study showed that arginine was not helpful -- and may have been harmful -- for treating heart attacks in combination with standard treatment.
Is Arginine Supplementation Safe?
In clinical trials, arginine has been used safely with minor side effects for up to three months. Possible side effects include abdominal pain and bloating, diarrhea, and gout. It may also cause a worsening of breathing in people with asthma.
Arginine may interact with certain medications that lower blood pressure. It may also interact with certain heart medications and drugs such as Viagra that treat erectile dysfunction.
Pregnant women and women who are nursing should not take supplements without first talking to their doctor.
How Much Arginine Is Needed Daily?
There is no recommended daily amount established for arginine because the human body normally makes enough.
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Natural Standard: "Arginine (L-arginine)."
The American Heart Association: "Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics -- 2012 Update."
Schulman. S, et al. The Journal of the American Medical Association, January 2006.
Natural Medicines Natural Database: "L-Arginine Monograph."