On Sundays, my dad and I bicycle thirty miles together. One of our favorite roads runs past a huge sunflower field, and we’ve noticed that the farmers never harvest the seeds. For some unknown reason, they leave the dried flowers standing for the birds to enjoy.
When I mentioned this to Jim Duke, the co-author of this column, he quickly pointed out that not harvesting the seeds is wasteful, in part because sunflower seeds (Helianthus annuus) are the highest plant source of arginine, an essential amino acid that we can only get from our diet or supplements. Arginine supplements are used medicinally for a variety of ailments.
Jim has been particularly interested in arginine because of the recent hype over the impotence drug Viagra (sildenafil). Whenever Jim hears about promotion of a new miracle drug, he immediately starts thinking about which plants might do the same job, only more safely. In his mind, there’s always an herbal alternative—whether it’s already known or yet to be discovered.
The advantages of arginine
Impotence often accompanies cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, enlarged prostate, and/or hypertension, and may also be caused by a host of medications that are used to control these conditions.
One of arginine’s functions is to increase our bodies’ production of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide relaxes and dilates blood vessels, promoting better blood circulation to the heart, brain, and bladder. Studies have shown that arginine supplements (1.5 g to 30 g a day) are helpful in treating angina, high cholesterol, hypertension, heart attack, and stroke, which may be because the arginine increases nitric oxide levels. Nitric oxide also relates to sexual function in men. Sexual excitement acts on key pelvic nerves, which call nitric oxide into action—the blood vessels expand and the penis becomes engorged, which creates an erection.
Arginine is also needed to increase the output of human growth hormone, which gives us big strong muscles, smooth skin, lean bodies, and lots of energy—like a growing child. Human growth hormone may also play a role in fertility, lowering cholesterol, and improving all the cardiovascular conditions that nitric oxide does.
Seeds, nuts, and legumes are typically rich in arginine. The highest source by dry weight is sunflower seeds, followed by carob and butternut squash. Other rich sources are sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, soybeans, peanuts, almonds, watercress, fenugreek, mustard seeds, and Indian figs.
But the research on arginine refers to supplementation with the free amino acid, which is different from how arginine appears in sunflower seeds and other foods. In food, amino acids are linked together by the hundreds or even thousands and must be broken down to be used by the body. In other words, the arginine in sunflower seeds, nuts, and legumes is contained within the structure of the proteins in these foods, so the arginine in these plants can’t replace the synthesized free arginine used in scientific trials. This important distinction is often lost—be cautious if you read something that says otherwise.
Population studies, however, show that a higher consumption of nuts correlates with a lower risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer. Along with the fats and phytochemicals in nuts, arginine is definitely a factor.
Jim and I would certainly part company in the beginning of this tale when it comes to enjoying a 30-mile bike ride, and we part company here, too. I’m happy to cruise on past the unharvested sunflower seeds and recommend using L-arginine supplements to treat impotence and other nitric oxide-related disorders. Jim would say not to leave those sunflower seeds for the birds, because 50 g to 100 g of sunflower seeds does provide a couple of grams of arginine, albeit only after they are completely digested and the protein is broken down. You’d probably do best by covering all your bets—starting with a handful of sunflower seeds.
Note: A diet low in arginine and high in lysine, another amino acid, may be beneficial for people with herpes. If you have the herpes virus, consult your health-care practitioner before consuming arginine supplements or large quantities of arginine-rich foods. 8
Brittenden, J., et al. “L-arginine stimulates host defenses in patients with breast cancer.” Surgery 1994, 115(2): 205–212.
Ceremuzynski, L., et al. “Effect of supplemental oral L-arginine on exercise capacity in patients with stable angina pectoris.” The American Journal of Cardiology August 1997, 80(3): 331–333.
Sabate, J., H. E. T. Bell, and G. E. Fraser. “Nut consumption and coronary heart disease risk.” In Handbook of Lipids in Human Nutrition. Boca Raton: CRC Press 1996, 145–151.
C. Leigh Broadhurst holds a doctorate in geochemistry and is a nutrition consultant in Clovery, Maryland.
James Duke is a member of the Herbs for Health Editorial Advisory Board. His most recent book is The Green Pharmacy (Rodale, 1997).