Where it comes from: Taurine is an amino acid that's found in large amounts in the heart and brain. It's also found in food sources—the best ones being meat and fish, though it's also included in energy drinks and some supplements used to support athletic activity.
What it'll do for you: Taurine is often prescribed to treat congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, liver disease, high cholesterol, ADHD and more. "Although most amino acids are needed to build protein, taurine does not help to build muscle because it doesn't link with other amino acids or the building blocks of protein," explains Roberta Anding, RD, American Dietetic Association spokesperson and sports dietitian for the Houston Texans. "Taurine does, however, function as an antioxidant." Antioxidants protect the body's cells from damage that results from certain chemical reactions involving oxygen (oxidation). Taurine is also said to improve mental and athletic performance:
- Improves mental performance
"With aging, taurine concentrations decrease in the brain," explains Anding—leading experts to believe that higher taurine levels correlate with better memory and mental function. Due to the popularity of caffeine- and taurine-containing drinks, Austrian researchers published a study in 2000 that examined their effectiveness on 10 graduate students. The results? The Red Bull energy drink mixture (with caffeine, taurine and glucuronolactone) was proven to have positive effects on mental performance and mood. Other studies have found that the combination might improve attention and verbal reasoning, but doesn't seem to have any effect on memory.
- Improves athletic performance
A study published by Japanese researchers in 2003 examined 11 men aged 18 to 20, who were told to perform bicycle exercises until they were exhausted. After taking taurine supplements for seven days (each time, before their workout), the men showed significant increases in VO2max (the maximum capacity of a person's body to transport and use oxygen) and time until exhaustion set in. The researchers credited the improvement to taurine's antioxidant activity and protection of cellular properties.
Suggested intake: Taurine is often referred to as "a conditional amino acid," rather than "an essential amino acid." The former can be made by the body, but the latter can not and must be provided via diet. However: "Some experts believe that taurine may actually be an essential amino acid, meaning it should be consumed in the diet," says Anding.
Taurine is a key ingredient in energy drinks such as Red Bull and can easily be ingested that way, as opposed to supplements. But take note: These drinks are loaded with sugar and are not the best when it comes to keeping a low-calorie diet.
When it comes to treating congestive heart failure, patients are typically given two to six grams of taurine per day in up to three divided doses. There's one gram of taurine in each can of Red Bull.
Associated risks/scrutiny: Taurine is possibly safe for adults. It has been used safely by adults in studies lasting up to one year. However, there is one report of brain damage in a body-builder who took about 14 grams of taurine in combination with insulin and anabolic steroids. It is not known if this was due to the taurine or the other drugs taken. Excess taurine is typically excreted by the kidneys.