Red Bull gives you wings, but can energy drinks extend your life span? Not necessary, but new research into the taurine they contain is getting longevity experts excited. Should you take a taurine supplement? We find out
An active ingredient in energy drinks such as Red Bull (taurine, taurus, bull, geddit?), the nutrient taurine is trending because a new study, published in the acclaimed medical journal Science, implies it could help you live longer. Despite the findings being based on its effect on mice and monkeys, not humans, TikTok has enthusiastically leaped onto these findings, which say supplementing with taurine increases the life span of mice by more than ten per cent. In middle-aged mice, this increase was sometimes as much as 25 per cent.
Ingesting taurine, says the paper, increases your cells’ energy and helps repair damaged DNA, among other things. Basically, “upping the level of taurine in the body drastically reduces some of the hallmarks of cellular ageing, among other benefits,” says Rhian Stephenson, nutritional therapist, naturopath and founder of Artah nutrition. But before you take things to extremes, like TikTok inevitably has by talking about 'weight loss' taurine IV drips and using taurine to detox from chlorine over-exposure, let’s look at the facts and figure out exactly if, and how, taurine could make you live longer and healthier.
What is taurine?
Taurine is a ‘semi-essential’ amino acid, so-called because we can make it ourselves but it tends to run low when we have a health condition, and because it’s a rare amino acid that’s not a protein-building block. It’s one of the most abundant amino acids in our heart, muscles, eyes, brain, and immune cells, but, says Stephenson, “to produce it, the body needs adequate levels of vitamin B6, methionine and cysteine, nutrients that we often lack especially if we eat a plant-based diet.” These nutrients are all, like taurine, predominantly found in animal sources.
Taurine production declines as we age like so many other things, which Stephenson says may be one of the reasons why it topping up may reverse cellular ageing so dramatically. Because it’s so prevalent in the body, it has a very long list of benefits.
What is taurine good for?
It combats the rate at which our cells age in a number of ways, the new study showed. Perhaps the most interesting is that it plays a role in preventing damage to the cells’ DNA, or genetic code. DNA is found in each cell’s chromosomes, which are protected by telomeres. Like the little caps on shoelaces, telomeres protect our genetic material from ‘fraying’ – degrading and mutating. But they shorten with age and less-than-healthy living, and the shorter telomeres are, the more chance you have of diseases developing and the markers of age accelerating.
The good news is that making the right lifestyle choices (diet, exercise, reducing stress) can lengthen your telomeres. Increasingly, it's thought that ‘biohacking’ methods, such as cryotherapy sessions (or just sitting in some iced water), and taking the right telomere-protecting supplements or 'longevity molecules' (among which are NAD+, NMN, and alpha-lipoic acid), can do the same.
Taurine in the study was found to act like one such longevity molecule. “In the study, reduced DNA damage by preserving an enzyme called telomerase, which works to repair our telomeres,” says Stephenson. Senescent cells – those whose telomeres have already gone to seed and which hang around in the body leaking toxic waste and inflammatory signals – seemed also to have been reduced.
But Dr Frederica Amati, a post-doctoral medical scientist and Association for Nutrition-accredited nutritionist, emphasises that “the studies of supplementing taurine are only in worms, mice and monkeys.” What’s more, she notes that in monkeys, it only increases health span [the number of years you live healthily], not life span [the number of years you live]. It’s also worth remembering that the Science-published study is currently the sole one showing this reduction in DNA damage.
What are other benefits of taurine?
Additional benefits of taurine have been known for longer, and include:
- It combats diabetesand high blood pressure
Taurine has been shown in a large meta-study to protect against insulin resistance. “It can improve glucose regulation and combat high blood pressure,” says Stephenson. It also effectively brings down LDL cholesterol.
- It promotes endurance
It’s involved in energy metabolism, hence why it plays a role in those energy drinks giving you ‘wings’, and why it’s often used for athletic performance and endurance.
- It helps you detox
It’s an essential nutrient assisting the liver in getting rid of toxins (from food, chemicals and pollutants) via bile, stools or urine. “If we’re not getting enough through diet or our internal synthesis is impaired, an under-performing liver over time will lead to inflammation in the body, weight gain, oxidative stress and more,” says Stephenson.
- It calms the nervous system
Taurine is structurally similar to GABA: both are calming neurotransmitters. It plays a role in reducing stress and anxiety and in promoting sleep. It’s also antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and it that way protects the nervous system. It’s even been shown to help people recover from psychotic episodes.
- It could battle osteoporosis
In the study published in Science, osteoporosis in female mice seemed to be cured, with bone density increasing.
The taurine bull sperm myth
Yes, taurine is found in bull sperm – hence its name and hence the myth that there’s semen swimming in your Red Bull (and Monster, and Rock Star, and other drinks). But killing lots of bulls to produce billions of energy drinks is hardly cost-effective or ethical, and entirely unnecessary. Taurine is effectively synthesised in the lab. That’s where it comes from.
How much taurine should you take and who should take it?
“Studies have shown that supplementing with 100-500mg of taurine per day delivers therapeutic benefits,” says Stephenson.
However, the taurine study in Science was based on the equivalent of supplementing humans with roughly 5500mg (5.5g), so over ten times as much, a day. And it isn’t known what these high doses of taurine might do to human organisms in the long run
High doses of taurine aren’t thought to be dangerous, and taurine has long been added to baby formulas (although most supplements are not recommended in pregnancy). But ingesting a lot of taurine, for example by drinking too many energy drinks, can cause side effects, says Stephenson “nausea, vomiting, headaches and abdominal pain have been reported.” Remember that when you hear TikTokkers raving about maximum-dose energy drinks and pre-workout cocktails containing as much as 6g.
Because taurine depletes as we’re under the weather or getting older, times of sickness, stress or life stages such as menopause and old age would appear to be good times to get on the taurine.
But Dr Amati is not convinced. “We have to remember that with age, we become not only less good at producing nutrients like taurine ourselves, but also less efficient at absorbing them from food, and likely even less so from supplements,” she says.
Therefore, she doesn’t recommend supplementing with taurine “yet – though depending on more research, it may be an intervention in the future. Especially for older adults and vegans.”
When in the day is the best time to take taurine?
Stephenson says this depends on what you’re using it for. “For energy, I recommend taking it in the morning or early afternoon,” she says. Given that taurine is classed by some sports associations as an illegal substance for its performance-enhancing ability, you’d think taking it before bed would be a terrible idea. But Stephenson says you should (presumably in amounts that don’t exceed 500mg) if your aim is to support detoxification.
So… how much taurine in Red Bull?
The most famous of the ‘taurine drinks’ has a sizeable 1000mg of the stuff, alongside four B vitamins, making it not a bad way to support the nervous system… if it wasn’t for the fact that every can also has a jittery 80mg of caffeine (a little under a third of the caffeine in an espresso shot) and a whopping near-seven cubes worth of sugar. It’s a mix that, if you guzzle too much too often, will make you feel uncomfortably ‘tired and wired’.
Which taurine-rich foods should you look for?
Fish, seafood and meat are the main sources of taurine, with scallops, tuna, tilapia, octopus, turkey, chicken, seaweed, and beef scoring the highest concentrations, according to Stephenson. Seaweed is the only concentrated vegan source. You can also look for plant sources with taurine precursors cysteine and methionine: Stephenson suggests chickpeas, lentils, walnuts, spinach, hemp, tahini, sunflower seeds and oats.
As far as Dr Amati’s concerned, there is no reason to supplement with taurine: “a varied diet rich in plant proteins and a variety of pulses, beans, legumes, fruits, vegetables, alongside occasional fish consumption, will provide all the amino acids we need,” she says [plant sources will provide precursors of taurine to assist the body in synthesising it].
“In case it’s not clear from my answers: spend your money on whole foods, not taurine supplements!” says Amati.
The best taurine supplements
Should you want to take a punt on taurine supplements nonetheless, here are a few we rate.
Best detoxifying taurine supplement: Artah Deep Detox, £32 for a 30-day supply
A liver-supporting powerhouse that also features liver’s good friend milk thistle, 200mg of taurine is assisted here by other proven longevity favourites like N-acetyl cysteine and alpha-Lipoic acid, alongside methionine, a taurine precursor, so can also support the latter's natural production. Expect improved digestion, bowel function, and metabolism.
Best food-state taurine supplement: Cytoplan L-Taurine, £9.20 for a 20 to 60-day supply
This vegan food-state taurine-only supplement is identical to how you would ingest it as part of your food, with no filler ingredients that could hamper absorption. It’s especially recommended for eye health.
Best vegan taurine supplement: Solgar Taurine 500mg Vegetable Capsules, £9.95 for a 50-day supply
All taurine in supplements is vegan, to be fair, but these caps don’t have additional ingredients that are not. Great for supporting all-round good health.
Best high-strength taurine supplement: Life Extension Taurine 1000mg, £14 for a 90-day supply
These vegetable caps containing 1000mg of taurine can be taken up to three times a day, if you’re intent on ingesting a dose that’s closer to the one used in the animal study on the life-extending benefits of taurine.