Taurine seems to turn up in so many things that it has become part of the norm for food and drink additives. Energy drinks, sports, drinks, supplements—even baby food—now contain taurine. How many of us even think to ask, what is taurine?
Put simply, taurine is an amino acid, one of the so-called building blocks of life. Amino acids are the elements of proteins, and anyone who is interested in fitness and exercise is also interested in building muscle to some degree. Taurine is a bit of an exception as an amino acid since it is one of the amino acids that we do not necessarily need all the time.
It seems particularly important to explore something like taurine precisely because it has become so popular. As countless young people, and even some older people, have taken to drinking energy drinks that contain taurine, it is appropriate to get an understanding of exactly what taurine is.
Doctors, researchers, and fitness enthusiasts all believe taurine provides a wealth of benefits. Everything from mental health to childhood development, it is believed, can benefit from adding taurine to our diets. What is taurine, what are the real benefits of taurine, and are there any potential ill-effects of taurine?
This article explores the science of taurine and how we may benefits form including taurine in our diets and health programs. What is taurine? And how does it work?
What is taurine?
Taurine is an amino acid. It occurs naturally in our bodies and is found primarily in the brain, eyes, heart, and muscle tissues. Amino acids are widely known as the building blocks of muscles. However, taurine is an exception.
Taurine is what is classified as a conditionally essential amino acid. There are 20 amino acids, the body only produces 11 of them. The other nine amino acids are called essential amino acids. We must get these essential amino acids in our diet. There are also what scientists classify as conditionally essential amino acids. This means we need these amino acids only under specific conditions.
Conditionally essential amino acids become necessary when we are fighting an illness or under stress. Taurine falls into this category. While it is an essential amino acid, it is one that we only need under specific conditions.
Our bodies can produce taurine, but may people require supplemental taurine for specific reasons. People with heart disease or diabetes, for example, benefit from taking taurine supplements. Taurine is also added to a formula specifically made for premature babies since it is taurine that is fundamental to fetal brain development.
There are some popular myths about taurine. For instance, taurine is not extracted from bull urine or bull semen. This is nothing more than a rather gross urban myth. The name “taurine” comes from the Latin word for bull, Taurus. That is the only connection to bulls, and the reason behind this connection is explained below.
Taurine works in several physiological processes. These include:
- Regulating the volume of body cells
- Stabilizing cell membranes
- Adjusting the amount of calcium in cells
- Producing bile salts
As we said, taurine can be produced by our bodies, but supplemental taurine may be helpful for the functions listed above.
Where does taurine come from?
The main sources of taurine are animal foods like meat, fish, and dairy. Taurine was first discovered in cow bile and this is how it got its name. Concentrations of taurine are generally low in plant-based foods. Eating a balanced diet that includes meat generally gives you about 8-400 mg of taurine a day. Taurine concentrates in breast milk and is essential for nursing babies.
Taurine can also be made through synthesis and biosynthesis.
Synthetic taurine is produced through a process called ammonolysis. This is a complex chemical process, but the short version is that two complex chemicals containing the elements of taurine are put through a controlled chemical reaction that produces taurine.
Biosynthetic taurine is made by isolating the basic biochemical building blocks of taurine that are found in living organisms and putting them through further biochemical systems to derive taurine. Again, this is a complicated procedure that essentially mimics that natural processes in the body which produce taurine.
What does taurine do?
Taurine is found in several organs in our bodies. These include the brain, spinal cord, heart and muscle cells, skeletal muscle tissue, and retinas. Taurine is also present in leukocytes or white blood cells, that reside in the immune system.
Taurine found in the body serves several functions:
- Maintains proper hydration and electrolyte balance
- Forms bile salts that are essential for digestion
- Supports the general functions of the central nervous system and eyes
- Regulates the immune system
- Sustains antioxidant function
As a conditionally essential amino acid, we can usually produce enough taurine to maintain these functions. However, in some cases, higher amounts may become necessary. People with heart disease, kidney failure, and premature infants require added taurine.
Taurine deficiency during fetal development can lead to serious conditions like impaired brain function and an inability to properly regulate blood sugar levels.
Overall, studies are beginning to show that taurine is far more important than doctors previously believed. Increasingly, doctors are recommending taurine supplementation over and above what our bodies produce.
Although it’s possible for your body to produce taurine on its own, you still need to obtain taurine through diet and supplementation in order to achieve optimal amounts of this essential nutrient.
Because of taurine’s essential role in the body, supplementing with taurine can provide numerous health benefits, including restoring insulin sensitivity, mitigating diabetic complications, reversing cardiovascular disease factors, preventing and treating fatty liver disease, alleviating seizures, reversing tinnitus, and more.
Why do we need taurine?
Since taurine is naturally produced in our bodies, it is obviously crucial to the organs and organ systems in which it is found. Fetal development, in particular, requires taurine. Taurine is also important in several other areas.
Taurine is necessary for protecting cells from damage. Studies have shown that taurine can also act as a neurotransmitter.
Scientists have found that taurine plays an essential role in brain development and the prevention of certain birth defects. Studies on mice showed that when taurine levels got too low, mice developed defects in mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cells) and muscle tissue.
Beyond this, researchers found that decreased levels of taurine in the eyes can lead to cellular degeneration of the retina.
Generally, researchers have found that taurine plays a significant role in helping with several conditions.
- Type 1 diabetes
- Type 2 diabetes
- Diabetes induced kidney disease
As a conditionally essential amino acid, taurine does not play an immediate role in things like muscle development. But as we can see, taurine plays a crucial role in our physical development and maintaining our health.
Existing research can establish several important benefits of taurine. More research is currently underway, but, based on all available evidence, we can detail some of the most important benefits of taurine.
Numerous studies have shown that taurine plays a significant role in making our bodies more receptive to insulin. This function makes it possible for our bodies to overcome some of the most critical risk factors for developing diabetes in the first place. This same research suggests that taurine may also help prevent diabetic nephropathy which is debilitating kidney disease.
One of the ways taurine can help improve overall health is by fighting obesity. Obesity impacts every area of the body, especially because of the inflammation-generating abdominal fat stores. Human studies show that 3 grams per day of taurine for 7 weeks reduced body weight significantly in a group of overweight or obese (but not-yet-diabetic) adults. Subjects saw significant declines in their serum triglycerides and “atherogenic index,” a ratio of multiple cholesterol components that predicts atherosclerosis risk.
Various animal studies support the anti-obesity and lipid-lowering capabilities of taurine, both alone and combined with other natural products. These studies highlight taurine’s ability to improve glucose tolerance in obese animals, an important benefit given how many overweight people go on to develop diabetes.
Perhaps most alarming, animal research reveals that obesity itself causes a decline in plasma taurine levels, which, in a vicious cycle, further promotes obesity. The observed decline in taurine levels was seen in mouse models of both genetic obesity and diet-induced obesity. Fortunately, in the same study, taurine supplementation interrupted the cycle, helping to prevent obesity and its consequences.
By studying the effects of taurine on the brains of adolescents, scientists found that taurine affects the release of calcium on cells. This has important effects on brain function. It seems that taurine is present in the brain in three important regions:
- The hippocampus
- The cerebellum
- The hypothalamus
Since scientists have detected taurine imbalances in the brains of people suffering from epilepsy, it is now thought that the presence of taurine in these crucial regions of the brain play an important role in helping with epilepsy. These studies have provided evidence that taurine works as an anti-epileptic neurochemical.
Researchers have begun exploring taurine as a treatment for congestive heart failure. They found that, in addition to producing bile salts, taurine also plays an important role in other processes:
- Regulating blood pressure
- As an antioxidant
- As an anti-inflammatory agent
All of these actions are central to preventing and controlling coronary heart disease.
In addition to these direct benefits, the effect of taurine in producing bile salts also assists in reducing cholesterol. One study showed that increased doses of taurine resulted in a significant reduction in cholesterol.
Taurine may also help regulate blood pressure by blocking one of the main biochemical mechanisms that trigger high blood pressure.
Again, while taurine appears at first to provide only small and localized benefits, continued research has shown that taurine has a positive impact on some of the most essential functions of our bodies.
Taurine Side Effects
Doctors generally agree that taurine is safe for human consumption. The levels of taurine in things like energy drinks are generally considered too low to lead to any adverse effects.
One study in the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association reported that some people have adverse reactions to added taurine, such as is found in common energy drinks, that include diarrhea and constipation. However, this same study said that these problems could be due to the added sugar and caffeine found in these drinks.
People who have a specific condition called adrenocortical insufficiency that causes the adrenal glands to produce insufficient levels of steroids may experience decreased body temperature and high levels of potassium as a result of consuming too much taurine.
Another study showed that taurine produces dangerous side effects in people with epilepsy.
Other side effects of taurine may include:
- Difficulty walking
These side effects are rare and generally come when consuming far too much taurine. People who have medical conditions who may be concerned about the adverse effects of taurine are urged to consult a doctor before taking taurine supplements or consuming products that contain added taurine.
Wrapping things up
Sports and energy drinks that contain taurine are now widely popular. These drinks are not just popular among athletes or people in training who may want the added benefits of taurine. Drinks that contain taurine now rival ordinary soft drinks in popularity. Although many of the manufacturers of these products tout the benefits of taurine, few provide sound evidence of these benefits.
As it turns out, taurine is made naturally in our bodies. It is in meats and fish. Taurine actually is important to some natural biological processes, including fetal development.
Taurine is what is called a conditionally essential amino acid. This means that taurine becomes an essential amino acid under certain conditions. While we do not need taurine to build muscle, we do require taurine for other important functions in our bodies.
Added taurine does provide some real benefits. Taurine can help fight heart disease and help regulate blood pressure. Taurine has even been shown to fight epilepsy. This said taurine can produce side effects. Generally, these side effects are mild, but if you have any medical conditions, you should consult your doctor before consuming added taurine.
The bottom line seems to be that the hype about taurine has some truth behind it. It is a naturally occurring chemical and it may actually help improve your health.