Achieving good cardiovascular health remains one of the top health priorities in the United States, despite billions of dollars having been spent on cholesterol-lowering drugs, angioplasties, and bypass procedures. A critical component to achieving long-term cardiovascular health includes regular exercise and proper nutrition. One nutrient in particular, L-arginine – an amino acid present in protein – is essential to a healthy cardiovascular system.*
L-arginine is involved in many crucial bodily systems, including creating proteins, regulating the immune system, and healing wounds.* But probably the most important function of L-arginine in the body is its contribution to good cardiovascular health.* In the cells that line the inside of all blood vessels – called endothelial cells – L-arginine is converted into nitric oxide (NO). The simple NO molecule – made up of one atom of nitrogen and one atom of oxygen – is a gas created in the endothelial cells that migrates quickly into the muscle tissue surrounding the blood vessel. NO causes the muscle tissue of the vessel to relax, allowing the blood vessel to dilate normally.* This results in normal blood flow to the heart, the brain, the extremities, and other areas of the body.* Another positive effect of L-arginine and nitric oxide is a protective effect inside the blood vessel itself. Adequate NO keeps the blood vessel healthy and more resistant to damage.*
Nitric oxide production in the body can be hampered by oxidative stress, by high blood homocysteine levels, and by high levels of asymmetric dimethylarginine (ADMA). ADMA is an arginine look-alike molecule that competes with L-arginine for the enzyme that makes NO, but does not actually make NO when it does bind to the enzyme. This ADMA-induced competition for NO production can be overcome by supplementing with L-arginine.* That's a good thing because inadequate NO production can result in endothelial dysfunction.* For example, without enough NO, oxidative damage can occur, white blood cells can adhere to the endothelial cells, and the smooth muscles underlying the blood vessels can abnormally proliferate.* The unwanted result can be reduced blood flow to essential organs, including the heart and brain.*
Nitric oxide can only be produced when there is adequate L-arginine in the endothelial cell, as only L-arginine can be converted directly into NO.* Numerous animal and human studies have demonstrated that L-arginine supplementation can increase NO levels, thereby promoting normal endothelial function.*
When there is enough L-arginine in the cells, sufficient NO is produced and several positive things happen:
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