Arginine deficiency in sepsis may impair nitric oxide (NO) production for local perfusion and add to the catabolic state. In contrast, excessive NO production has been related to global haemodynamic instability. Therefore, the aim of the present study was to investigate the dose-response effect of intravenous arginine supplementation in post-absorptive patients with septic shock on arginine-NO and protein metabolism and on global and regional haemodynamics. Eight critically ill patients with a diagnosis of septic shock participated in this short-term (8 h) dose-response study. L-Arginine-HCl was continuously infused [intravenously (IV)] in three stepwise-increasing doses (33, 66 and 99 mumol.kg-1.h-1). Whole-body arginine-NO and protein metabolism were measured using stable isotope techniques, and baseline values were compared with healthy controls. Global and regional haemodynamic parameters were continuously recorded during the study. Upon infusion, plasma arginine increased from 48+/-7 to 189+/-23 mumol.l-1 (means+/-S.D.; P<0.0001). This coincided with increased de novo arginine (P<0.0001) and increased NO production (P<0.05). Sepsis patients demonstrated elevated protein breakdown at baseline (P<0.001 compared with healthy controls), whereas protein breakdown and synthesis both decreased during arginine infusion (P<0.0001). Mean arterial and pulmonary pressure and gastric mucosal-arterial partial pressure of carbon dioxide difference (Pr-aCO2) gap did not alter during arginine infusion (P>0.05), whereas stroke volume (SV) increased (P<0.05) and arterial lactate decreased (P<0.05). In conclusion, a 4-fold increase in plasma arginine with intravenous arginine infusion in sepsis stimulates de novo arginine and NO production and reduces whole-body protein breakdown. These potential beneficial metabolic effects occurred without negative alterations in haemodynamic parameters, although improvement in regional perfusion could not be demonstrated in the eight patients with septic shock who were studied.