What is that Spooky Ingredient in Energy Drinks?

By June 10, 2018 December 28th, 2018 No Comments

If you’ve picked up an energy drink or pre-workout product recently, you may have noticed a common ingredient – taurine.  I’ve gotten a lot of questions about taurine; specifically, why it’s in these products and what the proposed benefits are.  

What is Taurine? 

Taurine is an organic acid that contains a sulfur.  Taurine is similar to the other sulfur containing amino acids, methionine, cystine, cysteine and homocysteine.  It is a crucial amino acid for human and other species’ pre-term and newborn infants.  Adults can make their own taurine; however, are probably somewhat dependent on taurine from food.  Taurine is highly concentrated in meat, fish, and dairy products and is abundant in the brain, heart, breasts, testes, gallbladder and kidneys.  The average human does not need to worry about taurine deficiency because it can be synthesized by the body from cysteine when vitamin B6 is present.  Deficiency can occur in premature infants fed formula and in various disease states, like an error in inborn metabolism impairing one’s ability to synthesis taurine.

What does Taurine do? 

Taurine has several biological functions, including serving as a neurotransmitter in the brain, as a stabilizer of cell membranes, and as a facilitator in the transport of ions like sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. Like GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid), taurine is an important inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain; containing anticonvulsant and antianxiety properties.  Taurine is able to act on glycine receptors, which mediates it’s anti-anxiety effects.  Some research has also suggested that taurine may have antidepressant properties, especially in people with diabetes.  It acts as both a cell protecting agent by stabilizing cell membrane health, as well as exhibiting antioxidant like effects. 

Why is Taurine Added to Energy Drinks and Pre-workouts?  

There is ongoing research looking at the effects of taurine, specifically in diabetic patients, for depression, and as an ergogenic aid for athletes and active individuals.  Here is a look at what has been studied so far: 

  • At certain concentrations, taurine may reduce oxidative stress on cardiac muscle tissue.
  • Taurine appears to be able to activate angiogenesis, or the formation of new blood vessels, and accelerate production of endothelial cells.
  • One study found that fat oxidation, which is when stored, large lipid molecules are broken down into their smaller parts, triglycerides and fatty acids, was increased with a small dose of taurine supplementation in trained cyclists, although their performance was not improved. 
  • Another study found that taurine taken 2 hours prior to exercise improved performance by 1.7% during a 3km time trial in trained athletes.  The reason for this improvement is unclear; however, the researchers postulate it may involve interaction with the muscle membrane, the coordination of, or the force production capability of the muscles involved.
  • Taurine has been studied for its interactions with testosterone, due to its prominence in male testicles.  Taurine acts mostly as an antioxidant compound and protects the testes and other structures from oxidative stress.  This is important because testosterone may promote athletic performance, not only through its long-term anabolic actions, but also through rapid effects on behavior. 
  • Taurine appears to play a vital role in the health of eyes, which is hypothesized to be due to a stimulatory effect on photoreceptors and rhodopsin (a pigment vital for sight) or due to controlling stressors within the eye caused by light stimulation.
  • Similar to the heart, taurine supplementation may protect against ischemia injury in the kidneys, as well as oxidant induced stress (caused by smoking) in the lungs.  This displays that taurine may have an antioxidant effect overall, which is important for athletes. 

Is Taurine Safe? 

Research has suggested that 3 grams of taurine in supplemental form (in addition to food intake) a day is a safe dose.  Higher doses have been tested and well tolerated, but there is not enough evidence to suggest lifelong safety at higher doses.  Common energy drinks and pre-workout products vary from 500 mg to 1,000 mg of taurine; therefore, unless you’re consuming multiple cans per day or several scoops of a pre-workout, you’re probably okay in regard to taurine levels. 

Overall, taurine does have some potential benefits, such as helping to keep the heart, liver, kidneys, and eyes healthy, working as an antioxidant, and providing relaxing, sedative effects that could help someone with anxiety and/or depression.  Clearly, there are conflicting results, but there does also appear to be some evidence suggesting that taurine may improve athletic performance under the right conditions.  Like always, further research is needed! 
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​Balshaw, T. G., Bampouras, T. M., Barry, T. J., & Sparks, S. A. (2013). The effect of acute taurine ingestion on 3-km running performance in trained middle-distance runners. Amino acids, 44(2), 555-561.

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Hanna, J., Chahine, R., Aftimos, G., Nader, M., Mounayar, A., Esseily, F., & Chamat, S. (2004). Protective effect of taurine against free radicals damage in the rat myocardium. Experimental and toxicologic pathology, 56(3), 189-194.

Neubauer, O., & Yfanti, C. (2015). Antioxidants in Athlete’s Basic Nutrition.

Rutherford, J. A., Spriet, L. L., & Stellingwerff, T. (2010). The effect of acute taurine ingestion on endurance performance and metabolism in well-trained cyclists. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 20(4), 322-329.

Shao, A., & Hathcock, J. N. (2008). Risk assessment for the amino acids taurine, L-glutamine and L-arginine. Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology, 50(3), 376-399.

Sung, M. J., & Chang, K. J. (2009). Correlations between dietary taurine intake and life stress in Korean college students. In Taurine 7 (pp. 423-428). Springer, New York, NY.

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​Zhang, C. G., & Kim, S. J. (2007). Taurine induces anti-anxiety by activating strychnine-sensitive glycine receptor in vivo. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 51(4), 379-386.

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