Have you ever looked on the back of an energy drink, seen taurine as an ingredient and wondered what it does? That was the first thing that made me curious enough to start looking into it a few years ago.
Firstly, I wanted to check the safety of it and if there were any downsides. And I was also curious about WHY it would be included.
Outside of energy drinks, taurine does have quite a few potential benefits. And even though it has been studied for decades, it looks as though we are only really scratching the surface when it comes to identifying those benefits too.
What is Taurine?
Taurine is a type of amino acid that is naturally occurring within the body.
It has many roles such as acting as an antioxidant, osmoregulation, membrane stabilisation, calcium signalling and formation of bile salts.
Taurine is required for many basic processes including cardiovascular functioning, eye health, central nervous system functioning and muscle functioning and development.
A 2012 review noted that a deficiency of taurine in the body can contribute to conditions such as kidney dysfunction, poor eye function, developmental disorders, and cardiovascular disease.
Where Do We Get Taurine From?
Taurine occurs naturally in meat, fish and dairy.
On average, those who follow omnivorous diets consume somewhere between 40 and 400mg of taurine per day.
Vegan diets have minimal taurine since it is almost exclusively found in animal products if not supplemented.
Taurine levels in the body are also significantly lower in vegans.
A 1988 study found that those in the vegan group had 78% of the plasma taurine and 29% of the urinary taurine levels in comparison to the omnivorous group.
Dietary patterns have evolved over time and these numbers might no longer be as relevant, but it is worth being aware of.
Another source of taurine, as mentioned earlier, is energy drinks.
In Australia, a 250ml can of energy drink typically contains 1000mg of taurine. This is significantly more than is found on a daily basis in a standard diet.
Why Do Energy Drinks Contain Taurine?
The main reason it looks like energy drinks contain taurine is due to the hypothesised effects on mental and physical performance.
There is some research linking taurine with improved athletic performance and a reduction in muscle damage and soreness.
Research has also linked taurine and improvements in mental performance.
Some of this research will be discussed below. It is not necessarily an ingredient that is consistently linked with significant positive outcomes, but there is some promise.
These links are likely even stronger when it is combined with other ingredients in energy drinks such as caffeine.
The exercise performance aspect is probably the least exciting aspect of taurine for me personally.
I am a sports dietitian who works with a lot of athletes and not once have I ever used taurine as a supplement with an athlete to improve their performance.
There are two studies that I am aware of that have measured athletic performance and showed positives.
One study had participants take 1000mg taurine before a 3km run. Their run time was improved by 1.7% in comparison to if taurine was not consumed.
Certain markers such as heart rate, oxygen uptake and lactic acid were measured, but no difference was found. Therefore, the mechanism was not identified. The hypothesis of the authors was that it might improve the coordination or force production of muscles.
Another study on taurine and cycling performance also found improved time to exhaustion. In this study, VO2 max was improved as well.
The hypothesis here was that taurine can reduce exercise-induced DNA damage, which would enhance performance due to these protective properties.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
Although I am not yet sold on the improved performance aspect, taurine does seem to consistently reduce muscle soreness.
Taurine reduces muscle damage during exercise which explains a reduction in muscle soreness that has been measured.
Beyond the muscle damage aspect, there is also a significant reduction in inflammatory markers, which also can explain why reported muscle soreness is reduced.
While I am not necessarily a fan of animal studies when it comes to human outcomes, mice that received taurine for 6 weeks showed improvements in Alzheimer-like learning and memory deficits.
Animal studies do not always translate to human outcomes. They can be useful for generating interesting areas to investigate though. Or they can be helpful for testing ideas that are not practical to test in humans.
To make this more specific to humans, the amount of taurine in the brain decreases with age.
There is a hypothesis that taurine supplementation can help maintain these levels. This could potentially help prevent age-related neurodegenerative conditions.
Taurine could help cognitive performance through a variety of mechanisms.
There is not a lot of clear research linking it with dramatic acute benefits. It is hard to say whether the addition to an energy drink is going to significantly help mental performance in the short term. But there is some theoretical promise at least.
A less spoken about, but quite promising area of taurine research is the impact on cardiovascular health.
It shows so much promise that it has even been approved as part of the treatment for congestive heart failure in Japan.
I am not aware of whether any other countries utilise it like that, but I thought it was an interesting fact.
A 2017 study on taurine supplements and exercise in people following heart failure indicated that taking taurine for 2 weeks significantly reduced cholesterol and inflammation. The dosage was 500mg 3x per day (so 1500mg total).
Taurine reduces the secretion of some of the components of VLDL and LDL cholesterol. This could theoretically reduce the risk of atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease.
Bile acids are involved in the process of breaking down cholesterol. And this process also involves taurine, which is part of how it can help with cardiovascular outcomes.
Research also links higher taurine levels with significantly lower rates of death from heart disease, in addition to lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
An explanation for why it can help blood pressure is because it decreases resistance from blood vessel walls, while also reducing nerve impulses from the brain that increase blood pressure.
To put context around this a meta-analysis identified that as little as a 2mmHg low than usual systolic blood pressure can have a meaningful impact.
It appears to decrease stroke mortality by 10% and other vascular cause mortality by 7% in those aged 40-89 years old.
Meanwhile, one study showed taurine reduced blood pressure by 6mmHg on average in those who had borderline hypertension.
Obviously, we do not want to get too excited yet though. Studies like this look promising. But the current studies we have are typically short-term, have small sample sizes.
They are also not actually measuring the outcomes that matter. Measuring changes in blood pressure may not necessarily reflect changes in cardiovascular outcomes.
It is mostly about using our best interpretations of the data we have available right now.
Taurine supplementation in rats with diabetes has been shown to reduce fasting blood glucose levels.
This looks promising, but once again, I would not encourage reading too much into this.
A study on those at risk of diabetes found that 1500mg taurine per day for 8 weeks did not have a noticeable effect on insulin secretion and sensitivity.
So although there is potential that it might be helpful, it seems unlikely that it would provide a significant benefit if the above study did not identify anything.
Taurine is the most abundant amino acid in the eye.
This explains why there is a linkage between the two and why some people are interested in this area of research.
Taurine may play a role in conditions such as glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, but there is not a lot of research on this yet.
So, it is still too early to confidently say taurine supplementation could help these conditions. Although I speculate that having an exceptionally low amount of taurine in your diet could contribute to these conditions.
Taurine appears to be safe to consume in the amounts you will normally find in food/drinks. No side effects have been observed under normal circumstances.
There could be possible exceptions to this with specific medical conditions, so it is worth getting medical advice from a health professional if you are concerned regarding your specific case.
But for those who are not in a specific situation like that, there appear to be no concerns.
The most conservative recommendation I have seen is that taurine has an observed safe level of supplemental intake of up to 3g/day.
Some studies have used as much as 6000mg per day, but typically that is for a short period of time.
The European Food Safety Authority found no adverse effects of taurine from up to 1000mg per kilogram of body weight per day.
To reiterate, for an 80kg individual, that would be 80,000mg of taurine. That number, assuming it is not a typo, is exceptionally large in comparison to the dosages discussed in this article so far.
Taurine is a naturally occurring amino acid in our bodies and in food. The most common supplemental dosages of taurine appear to be around 500-2000mg per day. This is significantly above what is naturally found in most people’s diets.
It appears to be completely safe to consume in these kinds of dosages.
There are also some promising potential health and performance benefits. Although even though it has been studied for decades, there really does not seem to be a lot of strong evidence for many claims yet though.
My interpretation is that if it happens to be in a product I have no concerns since it is likely safe. I probably would not go out of my way to intentionally supplement it though.
But you could make an argument that in some of the specific conditions mentioned above, or for somebody following an exclusively plant-based diet that happened to be low in taurine, it could be worth exploring whether it is worth addressing.