It doesn’t happen often, but a forum poster wrote something I agree with regarding lysine/arginine and cold sores:
“I’d stop the lysine. The whole arginine being bad for herpes is a bit of a myth, not any substance in the assertion. Even if there is a weak link for some people, the average diet contains about 30g of natural lysine every day! Adding a tablet form or two of lysine isn’t going to do much at all.”
He even provided links to clinical studies to support his claims.
This dude (more like a prophet) gets my official seal of approval (you know, if I had such a thing).
But apparently, the rest of the forum readers didn’t agree at all with his whole “arginine herpes myth” hypothesis. And thus, proceeded to absolutely lambaste him into next week.
Their main argument was the typical claim that taking lysine or avoiding arginine works unequivocally because it worked “for them” or because their brother in law Bob said so.
Plus, one of the pissy naysayers said that as soon as he started taking arginine as part of his workout efforts, he immediately started getting cold sores left and right.
(by the way, it’s really funny what happens when you say something that goes against someone’s beliefs. They get all pissy and defensive and immediately start attacking. As if there’s no room for rational thought OR an open discussion OR (gasp!) different opinions…)
But as usual, none of these naysayers ever take into account OTHER changes that might have occurred in their diet/lifestyle simultaneously (more on that in a bit).
So, in an effort to clear things up and answer the age old question “does arginine cause cold sores”, I decided to take a close, close look into the science both for and against arginine.
Where the idea that arginine causes cold sores started
It all started with a few of studies many years ago in a galaxy not far away (ours, in fact).
In 1967, scientists tried replicating the herpes virus in cell cultures with varying concentrations of arginine. And they found that without arginine, no new particles of the herpes virus can be produced.
So the logic became, no arginine, no herpes and thus, no cold sores.
Then in 1978, a study titled “A multicentered study of lysine therapy in Herpes simplex infection” from a doctor-dude named Christopher Kagan that found that the herpes virus had trouble replicating in vitro when the lysine to arginine ratio was high.
In other words, the higher the lysine and the lower the arginine, the less able the herpes virus was to replicate. And the herpes virus seemed to thrive in the opposite scenario (i.e. high arginine and low lysine).
Then, in 1981 a study was published where the researchers suggested that people suffering with recurrent cold sores should take supplemental lysine (my guess is this is the study that really got the lysine ball rolling). The idea being that lysine and arginine compete with each other and that if there is more lysine than arginine, the herpes virus will have a hard time accessing enough arginine to make copies of itself.
Why avoiding arginine ain’t all it’s cracked up to be
But as always, there’s a flip side to this particular coin.
First of all, a lot of these old studies were performed in vitro. And Petri dishes are great and all and provide a huge service to science (and humanity), but they aren’t the same thing as actually testing a hypothesis in humans via clinical trials.
Doesn’t mean the hypothesis is wrong, just that it needs further validation.
And while there have been studies that looked at the effects of supplemental lysine in actual real live people with recurring cold sores, there really haven’t been any that looked at avoiding arginine alone. Mainly because it’s damn near impossible to control for such a far reaching dietary factor in clinical studies.
Case in point, a study published in 1987 that highlighted the fact that not a single one of the clinical studies that looked at the effectiveness of lysine also looked at just how much lysine and arginine the participants were consuming as part of their normal diet.
And in fact, this same study found that the average American ALREADY ate more lysine than arginine on a daily basis through foods like meat and dairy products.
Up to here, nothing really flat out discredits the idea that avoiding arginine helps prevent cold sore outbreaks, just that it needed more “doing science”.
But more recently, there have been studies that have flat out discredited the idea that avoiding arginine has any effect whatsoever.
For example, a study published in 2009 in the International Journal Of Molecular Medicine actually found that high levels of arginine actually suppress the replication ability of the herpes virus.
Another published in 2012 found that arginine treatment dramatically increased the survival rate of mice infected with the herpes virus (the poor little bastards don’t just get itchy, disgusting blisters from the herpes virus, they die).
Plus, a study from 2008 published in the Journal Of Pharmaceutical Sciences and another published in 2009 in the International Journal Of Pharmaceutics both found that arginine helps to inactivate enveloped viruses (such as the herpes variety responsible for cold sores).
The point is, the case against avoiding arginine is mucho stronger than the case for avoiding it.
Plus, arginine is actually good for a lot of other, super important stuff…
Another important point to consider is that arginine plays a very important role in a whole bunch of metabolic processes in your body, some of which are most likely directly beneficial to fighting off the herpes virus.
In fact, a TON of studies have linked healthy arginine levels to a strong and healthy immune system.
For example, arginine has been shown to help reduce inflammation, help fight off free radicals, help fight off aging, help improve blood flow, improve heart health and even help dudes get their hard-on “on”.
But perhaps more interestingly for cold sore sufferer’s like us, it’s been demonstrated that arginine can boost your immune system, help fight off infections of various sorts and even speed up healing and recovery (think that last one is important for healing cold sore scabs ASAGDMFP? Yeah, me too.)
Why avoiding arginine is actually a huge, laughable waste of time
Plus, there’s an elephant size issue in the room that makes avoiding arginine quite possibly the biggest waste of time ever undertaken by a human being.
And that is the fact that arginine is a non-essential amino acid (well, semi-essential technically, since kids need to acquire it through diet, but everybody else is a-ok).
Meaning, when your diet lacks arginine, your body will make up the difference by producing some itself. And it does this by converting two other amino acids into arginine: citrulline and glutamine (the latter being the most abundant amino acid floating around in that there body of yours).
So, if you were to try and “avoid arginine” to actually lower the concentration of it floating around in your body in the hopes of preventing cold sores, you’d also have to avoid both citrulline AND glutamine. In other words, good luck.
Even IF arginine helps the herpes virus proliferate (big if), it doesn’t trigger its reactivation
But let’s take a step back for a minute. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the arginine-avoiding-evangelists are right, that arginine DOES in fact “supercharge” the herpes virus like performance enhancing drugs do to Russian athletes.
The problem is that among all the scientific evidence in favor of avoiding arginine, nowhere does it find that arginine actually triggers the re-activation of the herpes virus (i.e.waking it up from its slumber-y state of latency).
So it begs the question: how would arginine actually help promote cold sores? The only evidence we have (thin as it is) is that arginine may help promote the REPLICATION of the virus in already infected cells, but not its REACTIVATION.
And if you truly want to stop cold sores from coming back all the damn time, you need to focus on things that prevent it from REACTIVATING. Because as long as the herpes virus stays in a state of latency, it literally cannot cause cold sores.
So the way I see it, the whole idea of arginine being a cold sore trigger is nonsense.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again; once the virus has reactivated and the replication has begun, your odds of stopping the formation of nasty, painful blisters drops drastically.
And based on the evidence we have, arginine maybe-sort-of-perhaps-might help slow down its proliferation at best. But prevent reactivation? Nupe.
Why so-called “foods high in arginine” are not all that high in arginine
Again for the sake of argument, let’s keep on keeping on assuming arginine IS bad for cold sores and that foods high in this amino acid are to be avoided. Let’s take a look at some of the foods the anti-arginine preachers would have you avoid since they supposedly throw off your whole lysine to arginine ratio.
First off, they blame the usual suspects. Things like chocolate and nuts. But they don’t stop there. No. They will then go on to list a whole bunch of foods that contain more arginine than lysine, including uber-healthy stuff like broccoli, spinach, oranges, grape juice, carrots, etc.
Except what these fools fail to say is that the TOTAL arginine content of these foods is tiny, sometimes even negligible. Take oranges for example. According to self.nutritiondata.com, one big-ass orange contains a “whopping” total of 120 milligrams of arginine and 86 milligrams of lysine.
Now sure, if you look at the ratio alone, it looks bad. But in the broader context of a normal human being’s diet, it’s nothing. See, the average amount of lysine and arginine people consume daily is around 8000 milligrams and 6000 milligrams, respectively.
So a difference of 34 milligrams from a freaking orange ain’t gonna do jack in terms of upsetting the overall lysine to arginine ratio (which again, doesn’t even actually matter). Here’s an idea, if you want to increase your consumption of lysine versus arginine, eat more meat.
But it gets even dumber. Since a lot of the foods that you are told to avoid because of their unfavorable arginine to lysine content are actually super healthy and some even contain compounds scientifically proven to fight off the herpes virus.
Oranges are legendary for their vitamin C content. Broccoli contains indole-3-carbinol, a compound scientifically proven to inhibit the replication of the herpes virus. Spinach is spinach, i.e. possibly the most universally accepted powerhouse health food on the planet (with beneficial effects for practically every single system in your body).
But if the arginine content of foods doesn’t matter, why do people keep claiming that they got a bad cold sore after eating foods high in arginine?
Yet despite everything I’ve said up to now, I can’t ignore the fact that people everywhere keep on claiming they got a cold sore almost instantly after having ingested some food high in arginine (whether it be chocolate, peanuts, almonds, etc.). And you know what? I believe these people really believe that.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying these people are dumb or anything. I am positive they noticed the correlation, the suspiciously coincidental timing between said consumption of arginine containing food and said cold sore outbreak. And our basic emotional thought processes would lead one to believe there is a direct connection there.
But what’s really going on?
Well, my guess is that they failed to control for other variables in their diet.
See, as always in science, correlation does NOT equal CAUSATION. Meaning, just because two events happen at the same time doesn’t mean they are related.
Let’s take the workout dude I talked about earlier for example. Was taking an arginine supplement the only change he made? Nupe!
For one, he started, you know, working out. And working out too intensely can actually do more harm than good (in terms of metabolic stress). And we all know what too much stress can cause…
Also, did he make other diet changes as well?
Did he started taking other supplements too on top of the arginine?
Did he start taking protein shakes? Were they high quality or crammed full of sugar and crappy ingredients?
What else was he eating?
You get the point.
It’s like chocolate (i.e. one of the most demonized foods for triggering cold sores). Sure, it contains a bit of arginine. But you know what it also contains? Sugar. Butt-loads of it.
Sugar, which by-the-way-if-you-haven’t-heard, has been categorically shown to mess with your immune system (you know, the thing that protects you against viruses and whatnot) in addition to doing a whole bunch of other nasty stuff to your body.
Now I don’t know for a fact whether workout dude made other changes to his diet or not. But I’ll side with the peer reviewed science on this one and say that the arginine supplements are not his problem.
Look, the fact is scientific studies are only valid if they limit the scope of changes.
For example, if you were to study the effects of arginine on cold sores, adding or removing arginine is the ONLY change you would be allowed make in order to reach reliable conclusions.
Every other variable (like diet, exercise, lifestyle habits, etc.) need to be tightly controlled and accounted for. Otherwise, you can’t know what triggered the cold sore. Anecdotal evidence does none of that and is thus, unreliable.
It’s something I avoid when I make recommendations in my daily cold sore newsletter.
Every single tip and trick it shares to strengthen your immune system and put the beat down on cold sores are backed by more than simple anecdotal “evidence”.
And therefore, the outbreak prevention strategies it teaches are reliable.
Chris”The Cold Sore Killer” Mueller