Amino acids such as glutamine, arginine and perhaps tyrosine seem to get most of the attention in sports nutrition circles. One amino acid that may be being overlooked is taurine.
Taurine is a ubiquitous non-essential amino acid found throughout the human body, similar to glutamine. It’s considered non-essential because the body can make taurine from the amino acids methionine and cysteine with the help of vitamin B6.
Taurine may be non-essential and ubiquitous in the human body, but that does mean taurine does not have some potentially interesting effects that athletes may benefit from. Although taurine is listed as being non-essential, it should probably be listed as conditionally essential, which means under certain circumstances, it becomes essential to the human body.
Much of taurine’s exact role in human biology is still being elucidated, but what has been looked at is compelling. Taurine is intimately connected with cell volume, blood pressure, insulin metabolism, the ability of muscles to contract correctly and hundreds of other functions known and yet unknown.
For example, there is a steady decline in taurine levels as we age, which may lead to a host of problems. One study that rats fed taurine at 1.5% of calories found taurine supplementation blunted age-related declines in serum IGF-1, an important anabolic hormone essential to muscle growth and protein synthesis.
Another study found that supplemental taurine in aging rats corrected the agerelated decline in the ability of the rat’s muscle to contract. The study suggested that an age related decline of taurine content could play a role in the alteration of electrical and contractile properties of muscles observed during aging and that supplemental taurine corrected the decline.
Another exciting area of research for taurine is its possible role in managing diabetes and improving insulin sensitivity. Several studies in both rats and humans suggest taurine can play a role in improving several indices of diabetes, such as insulin metabolism, high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure, as well as others and diabetics appear to be chronically low in taurine.
For example, one study found Taurine attenuated hypertension and improved insulin sensitivity in rats made insulin resistant by a high fructose diet. Treatment with 2% taurine put in the rats drinking water prevented the blood pressure elevation and attenuated the hyperinsulinemia (high insulin levels) in fructose fed rats and prevented the large spike in glucose levels in response to an oral glucose load. The study concluded, “thus, taurine supplementation could be beneficial in circumventing metabolic alterations in insulin resistance.” Several studies have found this effect in rats fed taurine and made diabetic.
One human study looked at the ability of taurine to prevent blood platelet aggregation or “sticky” blood cells in diabetics. This is important because “sticky” blood platelets are related to the development of heart attacks and is a particular issue to diabetics. The study found that supplemental taurine made the diabetic’s blood aggregation or “stickiness” equal to that of healthy controls.
So what use does taurine have to athletes and healthy people? Well again, as is so often the case, human studies in healthy athletes are lacking, so it’s difficult or near impossible to make solid recommendations at this time. Taurine might be a great supplement to healthy athletes or it may only work in those populations who chronically lack taurine in their tissues, such as the aging, diabetics and others.
One thing is for sure, as with pretty much all amino acids, multi gram doses will probably be needed for any effect and any product that sprinkles in a few milligrams will be of little use to the buyer. It would be great if we had solid data showing some positive effects in athletes.