Taurine. According to its proponents, the amino acid is practically a "wonder drug," with benefits ranging from enhancing your workout and mental focus to improving heart health and treating epilepsy. Primarily, you'll find taurine in energy drinks like Red Bull, NOS, Monster, and Rockstar, but it's also in some pre-workout supplements and even baby formula. You'll also find taurine abundantly in your own body and in many meats and fish. So what is taurine, and, more importantly, is it bad for you? Let's find out the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on Taurine.
First the Facts:
Though it was first isolated from Ox bile over 185 years ago, conclusive studies of Taurine for its proposed benefits have remained elusive. It is an amino acid which is considered a conditionally essential amino acid. The "conditionally" is added because infants younger than six weeks can't produce taurine naturally, whereas the rest of us in healthy conditions can (as long as we're getting our B vitamins). Second only to glutamine, taurine is an abundant amino acid in the muscle amino acid pool.
Now what does taurine do? Some claims are up for debate, but having a depletion of taurine has been linked to developmental defects, immunodeficiency, impaired cellular growth and the development of chronic diseases of the heart muscle. Thus the reason for its conditionally essential status and why you'll find an abundance of taurine in breast milk.
What taurine is most purported to have beneficial effects for alertness and in enhancing exercise to some degree. Let's see how those claims measure up.
The use of taurine in energy drinks: Primarily advertised in energy drinks like Red Bull for increased cognitive response, taurine has been found wanting in a study by Giles and colleagues1. In this study, caffeine was the main culprit for an increase in mental focus, not taurine.
Pre-workout and Intra-workout Supplements: A big reason for taurine being found in exercise supplementation is for its effect on balancing water and mineral salt levels. The theory here is that taurine enhances the water content in muscle cells, which can be beneficial twofold 1) that can help endurance athletes keep hydrates especially in the heat 2) coupled with creatine, it can potentially enhance protein synthesis in muscle cells.
Does the theory add up? For endurance events, apparently taurine is beneficial.2 For bodybuilding? Not so much.3
As with anything in life, too much of a good thing (or in this case, theoretically good) can be bad. In a double-blind study on College Students about the effects of caffeine and taurine supplementation on the heart, Bichler and cohorts found that the combination of caffeine and taurine (contrasted with taken individually, or a placebo) raised blood pressure at the onset of the study. After a week though, increases in blood pressure ceased.4
So if you have high blood pressure already, be especially aware of energy drinks.
Though there are a few studies, such as those cited here, on taurine and its effects, there really needs to be more research done, especially to better confirm or deny the theorized benefits of the amino acid. The Journal of The International Society of Sports Nutrition concludes this as well concerning ingredients, such as taurine, found in energy drinks.
Unless your an infant whose not breastfeeding, a vegan, or in an acute hyper-metabolic state, your body is already producing a good deal of taurine. Until the theories behind the claimed advantages of taurine are better substantiated, I don't see the need to use supplemental taurine. However, I also don't see much of a reason to avoid it.
Thus, I'll leave it up to you, my readers, to decide for yourself. What do you think? Is taurine great for exercise or focus for you? Comment below.
1. Giles GE, Mahoney CR, Brunye TT, Gardony AL, Taylor HA, Kanarek RB. Differential cognitive effects of energy drink ingredients: caffeine, taurine, and glucose. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2012;102:569-577
2. Ivy JL, Kammer L, Ding Z, et al. Improved cycling time-trial performance after ingestion of a caffeine energy drink. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2009;19:61-78.
3. Eckerson JM, Bull AJ, Baechle TR, et al. Acute ingestion of sugar-free Red Bull Energy Drink has no effect on upper body strength and muscular endurance in resistance trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Dec 4. [Epub ahead of print]
4. Bichler A, Swenson A, Harris MA: A combination of caffeine and taurine has no effect on short term memory but induces changes in heart rate and mean arterial blood pressure. Amino Acids 2006, 31:471-476.