What is Taurine?
Taurine may sound pretty familiar to you…Taking its name from the latin word for “bull” (taurus), this organic compound is typically found in energy drinks. A tonne of research has been undertaken to examine its benefit in the laboratory on cultures of cells, in animals and finally in humans! In humans, many of the studies have been through the commercially available drink RedBull, which contains other ingredients, consequently, it’s difficult to look singularly at taurine as a supplement (1). However, studies that are currently being undertaken based on the research in rat models (as their genetic responses are similar to our own) to determine the actual effectiveness in humans.
This article aims to outline whether it is worth your consideration to add taurine to your supplement shaker, and if – like one energy drink manufacturer would claim – it truly can even “give you wings”…
Taurine: The Biochemistry bit
Taurine is a conditionally essential amino acid meaning in some populations (e.g. infants younger than 4-6 weeks or in people in intensive care following multiple trauma) it cannot be synthesised in the body. There are large amounts found throughout the body in the heart, skeletal muscle, retina of the eyes and brain.
We can only consume taurine naturally from meat sources, as plants contain minimal amounts of this compound. As such, vegetarians may have lower concentrations in their blood plasma than meat eaters. The substance (chemical name 2-aminoethanesulfonic acid) was originally isolated from ox bile in the first part of the 19th century.
What does Taurine do?
Usually when researching a specific supplement for an athlete or client, I look for a few main characteristics to assess its worthiness for use. These characteristics include theoretically proposed benefits, experimentation to test the effectiveness of its use, its safety and toxicity, and whether it is legal to use within sport.
The former characteristics – theoretical base and experimentation – are found in abundance for taurine!
It has a number of main physiological functions (2) but notably has been cited to have roles in early development; it works as an osmolyte to maintain cell volume and fluid balance, assists in neuromodulation, and even works to protect other cells against disease progression (including anti-oxidant properties). A better question, therefore, may be what doesn’t taurine do?!
Taurine as a Neuromodulator
The effect of taurine on nerves had been placed under the spotlight regularly since 1975 when experiments showed that if you give cats a diet deficient in taurine, they develop degeneration in the central part of the retina(3).
In fact, taurine has a number of different and varied roles in sustaining nervous system health; one of which is neuroprotection.
For nerves to function, differentiate, migrate, survive, regenerate and transmit impulses, a specific neurotransmitter is required: Glutamate (Glu) (4-6).
Too much Glu, however, causes a rise in intracellular calcium which can lead to neural cell damage/death. Studies have established that taurine has a key role in minimising and preventing such damage through three main mechanisms:
a) Maintaining the correct balance of calcium levels inside the cells
b) Sustaining the integrity of the cell membranes
c) Working as an anti oxidant to remove free radical molecules which can cause damage
These physiological changes, possible when taurine is in sufficient concentration, has been demonstrated to reduce susceptibility of seizures in mice (11).
In addition to this, studies show that taurine supplementation can also allow ageing-induced memory loss and attention to be attenuated (12), may regulate anxiety (13), and even assist in the management of depression (14).
Taurine can also reduce some of the cell damage induced by administration of alcohol (ethanol) by suppressing a particular protein called caspase-3, which is involved in the final stages of cell death (15). Sadly, although it may seem we have stumbled across the cure for a deadly hangover, such cell destruction caused by alcohol ingestion is multi factorial and not all mechanisms of cell death are prevented by taurine supplementation. Despite this, the scope and breadth of this supplement in protecting the cells of your body remains impressive!
Taurine and Cardioprotection
Despite these impressive characteristics, the question remains how far reaching the benefits of taurine extend. Beyond the nervous system, the most critical of bodily organs must be the heart, and taurine also provides the cardiovascular system with its benefits of cellular protection.
For example, epidemiological studies from Japan, where the strong predominance of taurine-containing seafood is consumed in abundance, shows a reduced rate of cardiovascular lifestyle related disease (such as interstitial heart disease and stroke) (16).
Alongside this, the cytoprotective nature of taurine is suggested to reduce the damage from heart ischaemia and potentially may attenuate chest pain symptoms of angina (17).
The studies examining taurine’s effect on the heart have been conducted by taking heart muscle cells (cardiomyocytes) and depriving them of oxygen (as occurs during a heart attack) (18-19). However, when the heart cells are covered with a taurine buffer, the result is less lactic acid build up (as a result of the ischaemia) and early return to aerobic metabolism (20). This would suggest that the resulting cell death which precedes an acute heart attack could slowed or prevented by taurine in the smooth muscle cells of the heart.
In studies with healthy students it has also been demonstrated that taurine can cause reductions in blood pressure and alterations in the pulse waveforms of the heart (21) – an effect these authors suggest would be even greater in subjects with cardiovascular disease.
Taurine Benefits | Exercise and Muscle
Now for the real reason you are likely reading this…What are the benefits taurine has on muscle and during exercise?
Taurine has been shown to increase the mechanical threshold for skeletal muscle fibre contraction, meaning muscle fibres can withstand greater stresses for longer periods of time. This is related to the modification of the excitation-contraction coupling process, which in turn alters the calcium handling ability of the sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR) inside cells. Ultimately, this allows for the re-synthesis of energy in muscles and means taurine can help to stimulate the body to work harder. (22)
Muscle Damage: Study
Studies started in laboratory rats to assess the potential benefits seen when taurine was ingested by the animals before endurance exercise: in this case, running on little rat treadmills (23).
First, it was observed that skeletal muscles had a reduced concentration of taurine following endurance running, thus indicating that the taurine was utilised by the muscle tissue. However, the reduction in taurine concentration was significantly less in those animals whom had been provided taurine (vs the control group who were not given taurine).
On top of the reduced rate of taurine depletion, the duration of time before exhaustion was also significantly increased by taurine supplementation. This would indicate that oral consumption of taurine increases capacity of endurance and slows fatigue.
This study is even more interesting as it also demonstrated that the rats consumed taurine prior to exercising had lesser amounts of creatinine, creatine and 3-MH in their urine, which are all indicators of muscular damage.
✓ This may indicate that the means by which taurine is able to increase endurance is by reducing exercise-induced muscle damage and fatigue, and therefore assisting recovery from exercise!
Recovery Benefits of Taurine
These benefits are considered to occur by modulating ion channels, cell membrane excitability (24) and protection of muscle cells against a response which facilitates atrophy (wastage)(25). Additionally, taurine reduces some of the oxidative stress markers induced by exercise and behaves in a manner to scavenge free radicals in various tissues (25-26, 28). This would then reduce the degree of substances created by protein degradation and energy metabolism, and maintain normal muscle morphology.
These results are further supported by studies in human participants where time to exhaustion, VO2max and maximal workload on an exercise bike were all enhanced by oral taurine supplementation (26).
Another really interesting study showed that muscle damage as a consequence of high intensity, eccentric exercise is reduced ALONGSIDE delayed onset muscle soreness when taurine supplements and branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) are combined (27)!
Effects of Taurine on Diabetes & Obesity
A final benefit of the protective behaviour of taurine is in reducing some of the detrimental effects of fat related diseases such as diabetes and obesity.
These benefits include:
✓ Protecting red blood cells against some of the changes in enzymes causing oxidative stress and damage in type II diabetes(29)
✓ Reduction in blood triglycerides and cholesterol, as well as reducing fat cell size(30)
✓ Positive changes to body composition and waist-hip ratio in healthy individuals(31)
Therefore, taurine can help to leave you healthier, fitter and in better shape!
Taurine Supplements | Safety & Dosage
Taurine supplementation as a specific dietary ergogenic aid has been demonstrated to be safe and non-toxic at intakes up to 3g per day, and as such, this is stated as the observed safe level (OSL)(32).
However, these authors do highlight that levels higher than 3g have been tested and tolerated without adverse effect. It is only the insufficient amount of data which means the OSL is not higher.
Of course the safety of consuming all your taurine supplementation from energy drinks is not as clear. Choosing almost exclusively energy drinks will contain far too much caffeine and sugar to be considered either safe or beneficial for the average athlete or gym goer(33).
The optimal dosage has been stated to be between 0.1-0.5g per kg of bodyweight per day (e.g. for a 70kg individual, an optimal dose would be between 7-35g)(34). This is obviously well beyond the OSL.
However, the benefits described on muscle damage and muscular endurance were caused by a dosage of 6g per day, showing that even at the lowest end of the optimal range benefits can be seen from ingesting taurine(26).
When combined with BCAAs, 2g of taurine provided three times per day, confirms the benefits described above(27).
Take Home Message
Recovery following exercise is important, however recovery when training in endurance activities or when regularly performing high intensity resistance exercise is essential.
Taurine, alongside being a super supplement, may also work in numerous ways to reduce muscle damage and boost performance, and may be a useful alternative if you suffer from caffeine tolerance or intolerance.
Go for a 2-4 week course of 6g per day to test its merits.
It may not give you wings, but it may give you a boost!