Arginine (also called L-arginine) is a conditionally essential amino acid that helps support cardiovascular health, improves kidney function, and boosts the immune system. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins in our bodies. Essential amino acids must come from our food sources or from ingesting a supplement, but conditionally or semi-essential amino acids are on the edge. Arginine, for example, is essential during our early years of childhood growth, but is usually nonessential in normally functioning healthy adults. However, because arginine is so valuable for so many processes in the body, foods high in arginine can help shore up your stores, and may be even more important in certain medical circumstances.
This article will explore what arginine does in the human body, who could use more of it, and which foods are good sources for arginine if you’re looking to give your body a stronger supply.
Arginine: Its Role in the Body
Here are some of the health benefits that might result from an extra intake of arginine. Research is still being conducted on this amino acid and how supplementing or concentrating it might help treat certain conditions, and so far the results look promising.
Blood and Heart Health
Arginine supplements are used to treat conditions such as excessive inflammation and chronic migraines. Arginine creates nitric oxide, which relaxes our blood vessels, improves blood flow, and therefore brings cardiovascular aid for certain people and conditions. For example, those with peripheral arterial disease, angina, heart disease, and even erectile dysfunction can find benefit from increased arginine. Arginine is also associated with shortening post-surgery recovery time and helps heal injuries.
The Immune System
Studies are beginning to show arginine’s immune-boosting effects, particularly with modulating some symptoms of herpes (flare-ups) and HIV (excessive weight loss), and there have even been correlations shown between low circulating arginine and cases of trauma and cancer. Though more research is needed, it’s a valuable discovery to know that arginine is often missing when the body is experiencing traumatic events.
Not only is arginine helpful in assisting kidney function after transplantation, but it also appears to reduce kidney inflammation. Arginine is often studied in relation to kidney functioning to try to isolate which conditions it helps best and whether or not there’s any potential harm from enhanced levels of arginine. As a natural player on the body’s chemical stage, it’s a particularly safe facet to explore.
The Research Continues
Arginine has been studied in the contexts of helping diabetes, obesity, male fertility, hypertension, dementia, and cancer, and the research goes on still. Scientists and doctors work to pinpoint the best application of arginine treatment and to better define its powers of influence. As a naturally created amino acid that helps us grow and keeps our bodies functioning, it’s a promising reserve for testing.
Foods High in Arginine
Short of supplementation, you can always get arginine from certain natural food sources. So which foods are arginine foods, and are they easy to incorporate in your diet? Short answer to that last question: yes, these arginine-rich foods will be easy to find and to eat (you’ve surely tried a few if not all of them already). As for which foods you should eat more of if you want to up your arginine content? Take a look at the list of foods below and start thinking about which ones you’d like to incorporate into your diet as well as your dietary intake.
Since arginine is derived in the body from protein, any high-protein food will help, but turkey breast in particular has such a substantial amount of arginine that it’s considered the best source around. With a high amount of omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins to boot, one cooked turkey breast provides 16 grams of arginine.
Seeds and nuts have a fair amount of arginine, with sunflower and sesame seeds both contributing 2.4 grams of arginine per 100 grams of seeds. While they’re a tad low in arginine, they definitely make up in balance by providing a high amount of the essential amino acid lysine along with your arginine intake, so you don’t run the risk of overbalancing. Lysine helps absorb any excess of arginine, and will act as a check on keeping your amount of arginine within its optimal healthy levels.
Another high-protein food, and with it comes another high contribution to your arginine content. Pork loin is one of the leaner cuts of pork you can get, so you’re not sacrificing one aspect of your health to favor another (balance is always key). Pork loin has 14 grams of arginine per rib, just second under the above-listed turkey breast.
What did we say above about seeds, that some aren’t that impressive in the arginine department? Well, here’s an even better option then: a cup of pumpkin seeds can give you nearly 7 grams of arginine, as well as the minerals zinc and iron. Pumpkin seeds are easy to snack on and a great arginine-rich food for vegans or vegetarians who don’t eat animal products. Plus, they’re trail-mix-worthy and can be flavored sweet or salty depending on your taste.
Chicken is a staple of a diet rich in protein and low in fat. One chicken breast can contain up to 9 grams of arginine and can be combined easily with other potent sources of vitamins and minerals like beans and vegetables in meals and stews.
Another kind of chick, this time chickpeas, or as they’re also known, garbanzo beans, offer up fiber and protein (especially for those who don’t eat meat). A single cooked cup of chickpeas has at least 12 grams of fiber, over 14 grams of protein, and 1.3 grams of arginine. Enjoy it as hummus and know that it’s providing you with that little boost of arginine you’re looking for.
With vitamin E, vitamin B3, niacin, and folate, a cup of peanuts also gives you over 4 grams of arginine. Pine nuts, too, contain over 3 grams of arginine per cup, and a good helping of mixed nuts will almost certainly give you a fair amount of arginine, as there are levels of arginine in almonds, walnuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, almonds, and pecans. Go nuts with nuts if you’re looking for foods high in arginine. Be squirrelly with them!
Another great protein and arginine source for non-meat eaters, soybeans and other soy products like tofu and tempeh provide potassium and magnesium. Soybeans specifically come with 4.6 grams of arginine per cup, and soybeans are also loaded with lysine for help balancing arginine.
Derived from a seawater blue-green algae, spirulina can be purchased in powdered form and added for its nutrients to smoothies and other foods. A cup of spirulina contains 4.6 grams of arginine, as well as iron, niacin, calcium, and potassium. You’ll probably use spirulina sparingly, but when you do know that it brings you that much more arginine along with its other nutrients.
Another great vegetarian/vegan source of protein and fiber, arginine can be found in lentils up to 1.3 grams per cup, with lysine again to pack a double punch of amino acid intake. Lentils also pair excellently with the meats on this list for the carnivores who are interested—there’s an arginine-rich meal in the making here.
Dairy products are sources of protein and thus arginine too. Just 4 ounces of cheddar cheese has a small amount of arginine, 0.25 grams, and a cup of milk has 0.2 grams, just a little bit more arginine for your effort. Some good news: if your dairy is coming in the form of ice cream, chocolate syrup has 0.9 grams of arginine per 100 grams, so add a little of it on top, or have some chocolate milk while you’re at it, and know that you’re getting some arginine there too.
We’ve saved the most curious for last: though most of us spit out or avoid the seeds in our watermelons, they contain over 5 grams of arginine per cup, so feel free to swallow them knowing they’re doing you no harm and also bringing you a little bit good—you can’t lose!
Arginine Foods and You
The value of gaining more arginine from foods is that it’s as natural as the healthy production of arginine within us. Not only is arginine deficiency blessedly low due to its levels in our food, but if you’re gaining a bit more of it through dietary intake, you’re not very likely to get too much of it either. With evidence showing arginine helps blood flow and heart health along with the immune response to cancer, it’s a natural amino acid to value and desire.
However: do remember that if you’re looking for even more arginine in supplement form (as with any sort of dietary supplement), it’s important not to go overboard. Too much of any one vitamin, mineral, or amino acid might have the unwanted effect of overtaxing a specific part of the body. Whether it’s by causing an excessive clean-up in the liver or kidneys, or overwhelming the other chemicals in the body that your chosen one works in concert with, you don’t want to throw yourself off kilter.
Look into well-rounded multivitamins or comprehensive essential amino acid blends that offer a measured balance of your body’s needs. Extremely high levels of arginine are no more desirable than low levels of arginine. Instead, what’s important is to have a healthy arginine ratio in the body that will meet your needs but not overwhelm your system. Eat well, supplement well, and prosper!