L-Arginine: The Miracle Molecule
Dr. Alexander Schauss discusses the amino acid L-Arginine… commonly referred to as “the miracle molecule”… and its many roles in the body from an aid in sexual functioning for both men and women to its being a key player in cognitive function and memory.
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Interview with Dr. Alexander Schauss
Interviewed by Raena Morgan
Raena Morgan: Dr. Schauss, what is L-arginine?
Dr. Alexander Schauss: L-arginine is a fascinating conditional amino acid and it’s called conditional because unlike other amino acids, which are either essential or non-essential, this one depends on what your health is. Your kidney can only produce so much L-arginine at a time and this is because there is a rate-limiting amino acid called L-citrulline and L-citrulline converts into L-arginine and that L-arginine can only produce so fast. What then happens is that if you have, for example, a burn or an infection or some severe injury, suddenly your body can’t produce enough of the L-arginine from L-citrulline so we’re very dependent on the diet for L-arginine. The problem is that a lot of people don’t eat the right foods or they don’t eat the right combination of particular foods that are rich in L-arginine. And as a result, they’re still short of L-arginine and this is where L-arginine supplementation becomes very, very important.
RM: What is its role in the body?
AS: Oh my goodness, there are so many things when you think about L-arginine. You know, back in 1992, Science magazine, which is considered the premier scientific journal in the world…it’s published by the American Association for Scientists and this particular publication declared L-arginine as the miracle molecule, or the “molecule of the year.” And the reason why…there was a lot of research unraveling at the time by researchers at University of Texas, at State University of New York and at UCLA, the University of California Los Angeles that was starting to show that L-arginine was absolutely essential for cardiovascular function, that it actually was a gas, not a chemical compound as we normally think, that circulated throughout the body and actually increased the body’s ability to respond to repairing tissue. It sort of made everything happen faster. Just think of trying to get a tow truck to the site of a car accident and the quicker the infrastructure can get that tow truck there directly, the easier it is to get that car out of there, get it to a garage and get it repaired. Well L-arginine was doing basically that. It was stimulating the body’s ability to move molecules. And it was doing it through something called signaling. And this was the great breakthrough that these doctors figured out that this gas was actually sending signals between different cells and those cells were now responding in the way they were supposed to whether they were in the immune system or to repair damage, like for example to replace damaged cells with new cells that were not damaged. And as a result, in 1998 all three of these doctors, these professors won the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology. From that moment on, the excitement that was related to L-arginine and nitric oxide really began to become very, very serious and at that point a lot of companies started to figure out, “how can we increase nitric oxide from L-arginine because that’s the gas we want to increase to facilitate normal healing in the human body.”
RM: So the benefit to the body would be healing?
AS: Well that’s one of many, many…when we get into L-arginine we could literally talk about it, I think, for an entire day. So we’ll try to do it in sort of a summary fashion. I think one of the highlights of L-arginine is its ability to get rid of a waste product called ammonia. Ammonia is toxic in the human body. We release nitrogen all the time because we’re creating tissue and we’re breaking down tissue. When you break down tissue, you release nitrogen. And that nitrogen is combined with hydrogen and they form a compound that’s known as ammonia, which our body has to get rid of on a regular basis. L-arginine helps get rid of that waste product, so that’s a very important function for L-arginine. Without it, we would become toxic and eventually it would lead to death. So let’s just say we need that L-arginine. It’s really, really important.
Another thing it does…it helps the body make three other amino acids: creatine, L-proline and L-glutamate. These also are very, very important for the body. When we think of creatine, what we think about is its ability to provide muscle energy. So it’s important to the muscles and also to the nervous system. That’s one important thing. L-proline is important for wound healing but also, interestingly, for the synthesis of collagen. We think a lot about collagen. For example, you hear doctors say things like, “if we can increase the amount of collagen in your wrinkles, the wrinkles would disappear.” Well, there’s another role for L-arginine that helps synthesize the very collagen that we need whether it’s for our hair, for our joints, for our skin, so it plays that role as well. L-glutamine is called an excitatory amino acid…excitatory neurotransmitter. So it’s very involved in energy metabolism and providing support for particular brain function where you have cognitive events occurring, which is a lot of the left hemisphere of the brain thing and things like trying to figure out languages, logic, reasoning. Things like computational skills, scientific inquiries, all these cognitive things that we need when we go to school and do well on tests, and also for learning and memory. So those are real important functions.
One of the other fascinating things about L-arginine is its ability to stimulate human growth hormone and also another hormone called prolactin. Prolactin and human growth hormone are really, really important and we’re beginning to suspect that the ability to increase human growth hormone has a role in supporting aging and in helping to support longevity in humans. So, as you’re beginning to see with all the different things that L-arginine does, it’s like incredibly vital to human health.
RM: It has an extensive role.
AS: Yes, an extensive role. One of the other things that I find fascinating as well because part of our life as adults has to do also with sexual responsiveness and sexual function. There’s been a lot of research done on L-arginine in this area because one of the things that we understand now about L-arginine is it increases the production and supports the production of nitric oxide, which by the way is technically nothing more than nitrogen and oxygen. So it’s nitrogen oxide, we call it nitric oxide or NO. NO looks like the word “no” so sometimes it’s not the preferred way to see it in writing, but nitric oxide really has an amazing role in dilating micro vessels or what we call vasodilatation. When this occurs in the sexual genital regions, what’s really occurring is we’re grabbing a nitrogen from L-arginine…this is a nitrogen atom…and then we’re taking an oxygen atom, which is also circulating in the blood. Of course we’re carrying oxygen all the time. Combining the two creates nitric oxide and when nitric oxide is available this allows the area that is involved in sexual arousal or sexual stimulation to suddenly increase because it’s just relaxed. And suddenly there’s a tremendous blood flow that increases. This affects the vagina, the clitoris the penis. All these areas can get very stimulated. That is one of the reasons why L-arginine has been associated with improved sexual responsiveness, both for men and women, unlike erectile dysfunction drugs, which are out there primarily for men. This is something that both genders benefit from.
RM: Well that's good news. Thank you very much.