BACKGROUND: The nitric oxide (NO) precursor L-arginine has been shown to produce variable effects on intestinal absorptive function, including ion transport. AIMS: To determine whether there is an optimal concentration of L-arginine, promoting proabsorptive effects from oral rehydration solutions (ORS) with 90 or 60 mM sodium. SUBJECTS AND METHODS: In vivo perfusion of rat jejunum with determination of net water absorption, unidirectional fluid exchanges, sodium and calcium transport, and glucose absorption. RESULTS: L-Arginine (1 mM) added to the 90 mM sodium ORS increased intestinal absorption of both sodium and water. Higher concentrations of L-arginine (2 to 10 mM) lacked this stimulatory effect. At 20 mM, L-arginine decreased sodium absorption below baseline. With a 60 mM sodium ORS, 2 mM L-arginine had a maximal fluid and electrolyte proabsorptive effect. At 20 mM L-arginine, net water absorption was indistinguishable from that obtained in the absence of L-arginine, and lower than with 2 mM L-arginine. Sodium absorption remained raised above baseline in perfusions with 10 and 20 mM L-arginine. Morphologically, villi from perfusions with increased absorption showed a large expansion of intercellular and lamina propria intercellular spaces. CONCLUSIONS: Low concentrations of L-arginine seem to stimulate water and electrolyte absorption by the small intestine. This effect is consistent with NO induced vasodilation, may be vaso-constrictive and thereby reverse fluid and electrolyte transport.