A Dietary Supplement That Might Really Work: Taurine

Readers of this column will know that I’m highly skeptical of dietary supplements. So you might imagine my reaction when I saw headlines a few days ago about Taurine, “the elixir of life?” (at CNN) and “Supplement Slows Aging In Mice And Monkeys” (New York Times).

Unlikely, I thought. But I read the scientific article behind these reports, and now I’m intrigued.

What is taurine? And could it really slow down aging? Well, it seems like it could, just maybe. A new study published last week in Science (one of the top journals in all of science) seems to show, for the first time, that taking large doses of taurine, an essential amino acid, might provide a host of benefits that include slowing down the aging process.

First question first: what is taurine? It’s an amino acid, but it’s not one of the 20 amino acids that comprise all the proteins in your body. It’s a slightly different one, and our bodies naturally produce it in small amounts. We need more than our bodies produce when we’re very young, but we get it from breast milk, and it’s added as a supplement to infant formula.

We also get extra taurine from our diet: the best foods for taurine are meats, especially shrimp and other shellfish, but also beef and the dark meat in chicken and turkey.

What did the new Science paper show? Well, first the authors (from Columbia University, India’s National Institute of Immunology and the Sanger Institute in the U.K.) describe how taurine levels clearly decline with age in humans and other mammals. Now, just because taurine declines doesn’t mean that replacing it will reverse the aging process, but at least it establishes plausibility.

They then describe a series of experimentsmostly in mice but also in monkeys, where they fed the animals relatively large amounts of taurine each day, and the results were pretty darned impressive:

  1. Life span in the mice increased by 10% to 12%.
  2. In mice that started taurine supplements in middle age, life span increased by 18% to 25%.
  3. Bone density increased in female mice and osteoporosis seemed to be cured.
  4. Muscle strength increased in both males and females compared to mice who didn’t get taurine.
  5. The number of senescent cells—those that don’t do much except emit damaging inflammatory signals–seemed to be reduced.

Of course, there’s always a big caveat with results in mice: they’re mice, not humans. And many, many times we’ve seen results in mice that just don’t carry over into humans. So the scientists also did a study (a smaller one) in monkeys, which are much closer to humans genetically. This also had some very good results:

  1. Bone density increased in the spine and legs.
  2. Body fat was lower than it was in monkeys that didn’t get taurine.
  3. Several measures of inflammation decreased.

Monkeys live a lot longer than mice, so the scientists don’t yet know if taurine increases the monkeys’ life spans, but all the signs are promising. I was skeptical going into this article, but I couldn’t find any obvious flaws.

In an accompanying article in Sciencethe University of Pennsylvania’s Joseph McGaunn and Joseph Baur point out that we don’t know for sure what the risks of long-term supplementation with taurine would be, but it is already widely taken as a supplement in baby formula and in energy drinkswith no known ill effects.

However, the amounts used in the Columbia study were very high, much higher than you’d get from energy drinks or even from standard taurine supplements. I looked up a few, and typical formulations offer 1,000 or 2,000 mg (which is 1 to 2 grams) per day. The doses given to monkeys in the study, if converted to a 150-pound personis equivalent to about 5,500 mg (5.5 grams) per day. That’s not very much by weight, and it would be easy enough to take this much taurine, but no one knows the effects in humans of such high doses.

The bottom line: This study is really intriguing. More studies are needed, especially to measure the effects of taurine on humans, but all the signs are positive. I’ll be watching closely to see if the effects in mice and monkeys carry over, and if they do, we may all be taking taurine supplements one day. And I just ordered some taurine powder for myself—why not?