A research team in America claims that taurine may be the ‘elixir of life’. The organic compound makes up 0.1% of total human body weight, and is essential for the heart, the skeletal muscles, the retina, and the nerves – but the researchers found that it it i short supply in the elderly.
The name taurine comes from the Latin for bull or ox, as the substance was first isolated from the bile of oxes in 1827. It’s probably familiar to most people as an ingredient in so-called ‘energy drinks’ such as Red Bull. But is it so vital that it could make a real difference to health?
Taurine occurs naturally in foods with protein, such as meat or fish, and the human body makes it from the amino acid cysteine. It helps the body process bile acid and balance fluids, salts and minerals, among other actions.
While consuming taurine in safe quantities as diet supplements presents no health risks, consuming it in energy drinks, which also include caffeine, sugars and other ingredients such as herbal extracts, could be a health danger. In some people, these types of drinks cause dehydration, sleep problems and nervous problems. Most of these issues seem to stem from the caffeine in the energy drinks rather than the taurine, which is why their purchase by under-16s is controlled.
But a lack of taurine in the body may lead to a range of health complications, including kidney dysfunction, developmental disorders, degeneration of eye tissues, and cardiomyopathy, which is a significant risk factor for heart failure.
Unlike caffeine, taurine is not a stimulant – in fact it is a nervous system depressant, though it is said to have a stimulating effect on the brain. The recommended daily intake is around 58 mg (ranging from 9 to 400 mg), but it is often deficient in a vegan diet as taurine is virtually non-existent in plants.
The research at Columbia University showed that levels of taurine decline with age in different species, including humans. Experiments on middle-aged animals showed that boosting to youthful levels extended life by over 10 percent and improved physical and brain health. A daily dose was given to 14-month-old mice, which is equivalent to about age 45 for humans. Results published in the journal Science, showed male mice lived 10 percent longer, females 12 percent, and both appeared to be in better health.
The effects of ‘topping up’ in humans have not been tested, so the researchers did not recommend consuming taurine pills or indeed energy drinks, though the fact that energy drinks have been on the market for decades suggests that they do no long-term harm.
Researcher Dr Vijay Yadav (seen above with a model of the taurine molecule) said that in elderly people, taurine levels could be 80% lower than in the young. “Whatever we checked, taurine-supplemented mice were healthier and appeared younger,” Dr Yadav said.
“They were leaner, had an increased energy expenditure, increased bone density, improved memory and a younger-looking immune system.”
Increases in lifespan of 10-23% were also recorded in worms.