What are the health benefits of taurine? New research conducted primarily in mice and monkeys suggests that amino sulfonic acid might be a key ingredient in the fountain of youth. So, should you start taking a daily dose of Red Bull? Here's what experts say.
Is the fountain of youth really filled with Red Bull? Yes, according to some news headlines. “Common energy drink ingredient taurine ‘may slow aging process’,” reads a headline in The Guardian. “Taurine, a nutrient found in energy drinks, may promote healthy aging,” NBC writes.
The results of the taurine and aging study are indeed intriguing — showing evidence that taurine rejuvenates just about every single organ in aging mice. The claims were enough to catch the eye of other researchers in the field: “The findings are remarkable — in that the authors report beneficial effects of taurine on the health and/or function of multiple organ systems,” Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Mark Mattson wrote on AlzForum.
But, all of these enthusiastic headlines omitted something important: The researchers tested taurine supplementation in mice and monkeys, not humans.
What are the chances that taurine will have the same effects in humans that it did in animals?
Scientists remind readers that just because a study showed staggeringly positive outcomes in animals, that doesn’t mean the results will translate to humans. In fact, it’s quite rare that results do make the jump. After all, mice and people have very different biology.
For this reason, Cambridge Health Alliance’s Dr. Pieter Cohen says taurine still isn’t ready for prime-time. It requires more studies to see if it works in humans first, he told Being Patient. And in the meantime:, he said, “I wouldn’t recommend taking taurine, given this data.”
What is taurine, anyway?
Taurine is a type of micronutrient called an amino acid that is made throughout the body and brain. Most people have heard of taurine because it’s a key ingredient in energy drinks like Red Bull and Monster Energy. Taurine might provide people with an extra kick — it may provide the body’s cells with extra energy.
Energy isn’t its only benefit. Over the years, scientists have linked low levels of taurine with kidney disease, vision loss, diabetes, and other diseases. Scientists have also found that taurine has potential anti-inflammatory properties.
However, even after all of the research so far, it isn’t clear exactly how taurine affects the body or why it’s associated with all of these benefits.
One theory is that as people age, the organs throughout the body stop working so well. The researchers in a recent study wondered: could this be due to a lack of taurine? They tested whether supplementing taurine could reverse these age-related changes.
Where does taurine come from?
There is a pervasive urban legend that the taurine in Red Bull comes from bull testicles. The manufacturer of the energy drink even felt the need to debunk this idea on their website. Rather, tTaurine is actually a common nutrient found in many types of meat (not just testicles) and fish.
The human body also makes its fair share. Despite a lack of evidence, many supplement websites believe that taking taurine supplements boost brain health and energy.
However, there are problems with taking supplements in general. The supplement industry is notoriously unregulated. Some supplements may contain illegal ingredients with potentially dangerous mixtures and doses. Taurine could also interfere with other medications, and at very high concentrations may be toxic.
What did the taurine study find?
Specifically, the research team investigating taurine first wanted to see what happened to taurine levels in the blood as individuals aged. Looking at groups of monkeys, mice, and humans, they saw that across all categories, older individuals had lower levels of taurine compared to younger individuals.
Next, they tested whether taurine could help animals stay young. In mice, taurine appeared to increased lifespan by between 10 and 12 percent. So, if a mouse’s life expectancy is 29 months, mice taking taurine second limits were expected to live for 33 months. The researchers also found that taurine improved the function of all the mice’s organs.
They found similar effects in monkeys who received taurine supplements in their food.
The researchers then looked at what biological pathways may be activated by taurine. In their animal subjects, they observed that taurine activated anti-inflammatory and anti-aging pathways.
Finally, it was time to give taurine and humans a closer look: In a human experiment, the researchers found that exercise increases the levels of taurine and related molecules in the blood. Note that finding so many positive results across different experiments is statistically unlikely.
Being Patient spoke with James Heathers, PhD, who has been recognized for his expertise in statistics and scientific integrity to see if these results are really too good to be true. Heathers didn’t spot any glaring statistical issues with the study but remained skeptical of what it might mean for humans.
“Rodent-to-human results in metabolism have a long history of being misguided, it’s quite an annoying area for clinical translation,” said Heathers.
The lead researcher on the study is Vijay K. Yadav, an assistant professor of genetics & development at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Previously, Yadav had worked on the hormone serotonin. Two of his high-profile papers on serotonin that had surprising findings were later criticized and disputed by other research groups who raised doubts over the study’s findings.
Does taurine have any health benefits?
While the study reinforced previous findings that taurine is a biomarker that correlates with age (like wrinkles or gray hair), it is not yet known if taurine actually has any influence over the aging process.
And when new drugs and treatments are found to work in animal studies, they rarely translate to humans. Until randomized clinical trials are conducted, experts do not recommend using these supplements, noting many health supplements can be a waste of money, or worse. Supplements are unregulated, often untested, and, Cohen added, “may contain potent pharmaceutical drugs that are not approved for use.”
As for taurine, more research is needed to understand whether it really, as Red Bull energy drinks puts it, “gives you wings.”