Arginine is a type of amino acid that’s important for regulating blood flow.

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Proteins are digested into amino acids and then absorbed into the body. They can be taken apart and put back together in different ways to make the different proteins your body needs.

Your body can make amino acids on its own, but others, considered essential amino acids, must come from the food you eat.

For nutritional purposes, amino acids are divided into three categories:

  • Nonessential: Your body can produce these in sufficient amounts to meet the body’s needs.
  • Essential: Your body can’t produce these, so you need to get them from foods.
  • Semi-essential: These amino acids aren’t essential under normal circumstances, but may be in certain situations.

Arginine is a semi-essential amino acid because it’s typically needed for children’s growth, but is nonessential for healthy adults.

Your body can also make arginine in addition to getting it from food sources, so deficiencies are rare. However, a person during times of stress and rapid growth can become deficient in arginine if the body’s production doesn’t meet its requirements.

Here’s what arginine does for your body:

  • creates nitric oxide, which widens and relaxes arteries and blood vessels, improving blood flow
  • helps heal injuries
  • aids kidneys in removing waste
  • boosts immune system function

People take arginine as a dietary supplement to help manage heart disease, angina, and erectile dysfunction, as well as for bodybuilding, healing wounds, and repairing tissue.

There’s some evidence that increasing arginine intake may be helpful for treating all of these conditions. However, taking it as a supplement may have side effects such as upset stomach and diarrhea.

Larger doses may also carry risks for people who take other medications or have certain health conditions.

The good news is that getting arginine from high-protein foods is safe and healthy. And since arginine is made from other amino acids, high-protein foods in general help increase arginine levels.

Boost your arginine intake with these 10 foods:

You’ll find the highest amount of arginine in turkey breast. One cooked breast has 16 grams! Not only is turkey a great source of protein, it has a high concentration of other nutrients such as B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids.

Pork loin, another high-protein food, comes in a close second with an arginine content of 14 grams per rib. It’s also one of the leanest cuts of pork, so it’s lower in fat. Use a marinade to add flavor without the extra fat.

Chicken is another popular and healthy way to get protein. It’s also the third-best source of arginine. One chicken breast has 70 percent of your daily recommended protein and almost 9 grams of arginine. Check out these diabetes-friendly chicken recipes.

Animal sources aren’t the only way to get protein and arginine. One cup of pumpkin seeds has almost 7 grams. Pumpkin seeds are also a great source of the minerals iron and zinc. Try adding them as a crunchy salad topping or as part of a trail mix.

One cup of roasted soybeans has 4.6 grams of arginine. Soybeans are also a great source of the minerals potassium and magnesium. Try them as a healthy snack alternative.

A cup of peanuts contains 4.6 grams of arginine, although you don’t want to eat a whole cup in one sitting because the nuts are high in fat. Instead, spread that cup out with a few one-quarter cup servings throughout the week. In addition to their protein content, peanuts are a good source for vitamins B-3 and E, folate, and niacin.

Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae that grows in the sea. It’s often bought as a powder and used to add extra nutrients to smoothies. One cup of spirulina has 4.6 grams of arginine along with high amounts of calcium, iron, potassium, and niacin. However, for smoothie recipes you’re more likely to use a tablespoon of spirulina, which would put the arginine count at 0.28 grams.

Since they’re sources of protein, you can also get arginine from dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt. One cup of milk contains about 0.2 grams, and 4 ounces of cheddar cheese contains about 0.25 grams.

Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, are a great way to get protein and fiber, especially if you don’t eat meat. One cup of cooked chickpeas contains 1.3 grams of arginine, 14.5 grams of protein, and 12.5 grams of dietary fiber. Make chickpeas with curry or help yourself to some hummus!

Lentils are another healthy plant source of fiber and protein. It’s not surprising that you’ll find arginine in them too: about 1.3 grams per cup. One cup of lentils also contains 63 percent of your daily dietary fiber requirement. Try these delicious lentils recipes.