Brain Benefits of Taurine: More Than a Performance Booster

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Taurine can benefit anxiety and stress and its neuroprotective capabilities can help with age-related mental decline. Learn how you can best use taurine.

You may be familiar with taurine as a supplement used by athletes to enhance physical performance, or as an ingredient in energy drinks.

But taurine is much more than that.

In fact, it may be one of the most valuable nutrients for your mental well-being and overall health.

What Is Taurine?

Taurine is a sulfur amino acid and one of the most abundant compounds in the brain, central nervous system, retina, heart, gallbladder, kidneys, pancreas, and muscles. (1, 2)

It plays an important role in many aspects of the health and function of these organs.

It aids the movement of potassium, sodium, calcium, and magnesium in and out of cells. (3)

Taurine almost qualifies as a neurotransmitter, chemicals used by brain cells to communicate with each other.

It meets all of the criteria of a neurotransmitter except one — no taurine-specific receptors have been identified. (4)

It’s considered a non-essential or conditional amino acid since your liver and brain can synthesize some taurine, but not enough to meet all your needs. (5)

The remainder of your taurine requirements must come from your diet, mostly from poultry and seafood.

Where Does Taurine Come From?

Taurine was first discovered in the bile of bulls.

The word “taurine” is derived from “taurus,” the Latin word for ox or bull.

The best sources of taurine are seafood (especially shellfish) and poultry (especially dark meat). (6)

You’ll also get some from meat and a little from dairy.

It’s found in human breast milk and is added to infant formula since it’s critical for a newborn’s brain and eye development. (7)

The only known vegetable to contain taurine is nori, the sea vegetable used to wrap sushi. (8)

Besides consuming taurine directly from food, your body can synthesize it from the amino acid cysteine.

The top food sources of cysteine include animal products, oat bran, lentils, kidney beans, asparagus, and mustard greens. (9)

Does Taurine Come from Bull Urine?

Currently, the most popular energy drink is Red Bull which contains taurine.

Someone made the connection between bull and taurine and a rumor got started that Red Bull’s taurine came from bulls.

But rest assured there is no bull urine or bull sperm in any energy drinks.

The taurine used by these companies is chemically created in laboratories.

It is not financially feasible for them to extract taurine from any natural sources, and that includes bull urine!

Red Bull clearly states on their website:

“The taurine in Red Bull is not derived from animals. It is produced synthetically by pharmaceutical companies, which guarantees high quality standards.” (10)

Causes of Taurine Deficiency

In spite of taurine being abundant in the body, not everyone has enough of it for their needs.

Since it’s found almost exclusively in animal products, vegetarians and especially vegans are at risk for taurine deficiency. (11)

Seniors are also at risk since taurine levels drop with age. (12)

Taurine deficiency is linked to many health conditions including anxiety, depression, epilepsy, and congestive heart failure.

Low levels of taurine have been reported in Parkinson’s patients. (13)

Both type 1 and type 2 diabetics have subpar levels of taurine and can benefit from supplementation. (14)

Chemotherapy drugs used to treat cancer deplete taurine. (15)

Anyone with chronic heart, liver, or kidney disease may become deficient in taurine. (16)

If you are concerned that you have a taurine deficiency, you can try supplementation first since it’s safe to use.

Or you can talk to your doctor about getting your taurine levels checked with a blood test.

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Overview of Taurine Benefits

Taurine is essential for a healthy heart, brain, bones, vision, hearing, and more.

It’s thought to increase physical stamina and improve athletic performance.

It’s also critical for mental health and well-being.

It can help with anxiety, panic attacks, and insomnia.

There is a significant correlation between high levels of dietary taurine and longevity.

A diet high in taurine (from seafood) is believed to be one of the reasons for the extreme longevity found in pockets of people in Japan. (17, 18, 19)

However, the two most common reasons people supplement with taurine are to enhance physical performance and to calm anxiety.

Taurine supplements are commonly taken by endurance athletes and bodybuilders to relieve cramps, muscle soreness, and fatigue.

But limited research has been done and so far the evidence of taurine’s efficacy for these conditions is mixed. (20, 21)

How Taurine Calms Anxiety

While the evidence on taurine as a performance booster is inconclusive, the evidence on taurine for anxiety is sound.

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the brain’s key calming neurotransmitter, is essential for feeling happy and relaxed.

Low GABA levels can be brought on by stress, physical exertion, illness, injury, blood sugar imbalance, or gluten intolerance.

People low in GABA often self-medicate with food, alcohol, or tranquilizing drugs to relax.

But a much healthier and effective way to increase GABA is with taurine supplementation.

Taurine acts amazingly like GABA in the brain.

It has a similar structure to GABA and binds to GABA receptors. (22)

Researchers have found taurine to be “extraordinarily active” on these brain receptors. (23)

Additionally, taurine stimulates the release and formation of GABA. (24)

If you tend to be anxious and have trouble concentrating or sleeping, taurine can calm and focus your anxious, distractible mind.

Why Taurine Supplements Work Better for Anxiety than GABA

It would seem logical to supplement with GABA rather than taurine.

However, GABA supplements don’t work for everyone for a good reason.

The current scientific consensus is that GABA molecules are too large to cross the blood-brain barrier to enter the brain.

The fact that they work for some people is a mystery waiting to be solved.

It’s suspected that unknown mechanisms are at work or that certain areas of the brain allow GABA access. (25, 26)

Another theory is that GABA can enter the brain only if the blood-brain barrier has been compromised and is “leaky.”

If this makes you leery about trying GABA or you’ve tried it without success, taurine supplements are a reasonable alternative.

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Other Brain Benefits of Taurine

Addressing a GABA imbalance isn’t the only way taurine benefits your brain and mental health.

Taurine exhibits impressive neuroprotective capabilities and can help protect against age-related mental decline. (27)

One of the ways it does this is by increasing the level of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). (28)

This protein acts like fertilizer in your brain, stimulating the growth of new brain cells.

Taurine especially promotes the formation of new brain cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain considered its memory center.

It also has shown to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antidepressant properties. (29, 3031)

Taurine has a role in a number of nervous system functions and shows promise as a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s. (3233)

Levels of taurine are naturally low in Parkinson’s patients.

And, unfortunately, the drug used to treat it, levodopa, depletes taurine further, making this amino acid a must-have supplement for those with this disease. (34)

Other mental health and neurological conditions that taurine can be helpful for include: (35, 36, 37, 38, 39)

  • attention disorders
  • autism
  • bipolar disorder
  • depression
  • epilepsy
  • hypertension
  • neuropathy
  • neurotoxicity
  • sleep disorders
  • stroke
  • substance abuse

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Notable Taurine Health Benefits

Since taurine is present throughout the body, it’s been found to help almost every major organ system.

Eyes and Ears

Taurine is essential for healthy vision.

The retina has a higher concentration of taurine than any other part of the body. (40)

Taurine also plays a vital role in hearing.

Taurine supplementation can sometimes reverse hearing loss.

Tinnitus is an annoying condition that causes ringing in the ears.

It’s not fully understood whether tinnitus is ear-related or brain-related, but at least for some, taurine can almost completely eliminate it. (41)

Heart Disease

Taurine is the most important and abundant amino acid in the heart.

It improves blood flow and oxygen supply to heart cells. (42)

It increases the effectiveness of heart muscle contractions and normalizes rhythm irregularities. (43)

Patients with congestive heart failure can improve their exercise capacity with taurine supplementation. (44)

Diabetes

It’s well established that diabetics have lower levels of taurine than those with normal blood sugar levels. (45)

A taurine supplement can help diabetes in several ways.

It decreases insulin resistance and helps to offset significant side effects of diabetes such as retinopathy, neuropathy, and kidney damage. (46)

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Taurine for MSG Reactions

One of the most unusual uses for taurine supplements is for neutralizing reactions to the food additive MSG (monosodium glutamate).

According to the US National Library of Medicine, reported reactions from MSG consumption include headache, sweating, flushing, numbness or burning in the mouth or throat, abdominal pain, nausea, fatigue, and hives. (47)

Additionally, lab animals fed MSG exhibit brain lesions, stunted skeletal development, obesity, sterility, and liver damage. (48, 49)

MSG is commonly found in processed foods of all kinds, particularly salty foods such as canned soups, salty snacks, ramen noodles, and veggie burgers, so inadvertent MSG consumption is not unusual.

In fact, it’s hard to avoid MSG since it is added to many foods and is not required to be explicitly labeled if it’s in the form of a compound such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein, yeast extract, soy extract, or protein isolate. (50, 51)

And, of course, if you want to avoid MSG, eating at restaurants is always a gamble.

There’s a growing body of evidence that taking supplemental taurine after accidental ingestion of MSG can reduce MSG-induced symptoms. (52)

According to Review: Taurine: A “very essential” amino acid, a study published on the National Institutes of Health database, here are the facts that connect the dots between MSG and taurine:

  • Monosodium glutamate is a known neurotoxin that can affect cells in the central nervous system.
  • Too much glutamate can cause inadequate oxygen (hypoxia) and blood supply (ischemia) to the brain.
  • Taurine is cytoprotective — it protects cells from damage by harmful substances.
  • Taurine is one of the most effective agents for protection against toxic levels of glutamate.

Taurine in Energy Drinks: A Lot of Bull

No article on the benefits of taurine would be complete without taking a look at the taurine found in energy drinks.

Taurine is among the top three ingredients added to energy drinks after caffeine and various B vitamins. (53)

You may have read the label on a drink can and wondered why taurine is in your energy drink.

The answer may surprise you.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition concluded that any performance-enhancing effects of energy drinks come from carbohydrates and/or caffeine, NOT from other nutrients (like taurine) purported to enhance mental function or physical performance. (54)

Dr. Neil L. Harrison, professor of pharmacology at Weill Cornell Medical College, has led research on taurine and GABA receptors in the brain.

Regarding the taurine added to energy drinks, Dr. Harrison says:

“Its inclusion in these supplements is a little puzzling, because our research would suggest that instead of being a pick-me-up, the taurine actually would have more of a sedative effect on the brain.” (55)

He specifically recommends avoiding energy drinks with taurine since its effect may negate the boost from caffeine — the reason people drink this stuff!

He believes that taurine may actually play a role in the “crash” often experienced from energy drinks.

So, ironically, if you want to experience the boost in focus, productivity, and energy from caffeine, it’s best to drink natural sources of caffeine like coffee or tea, or look for an energy drink that does not contain taurine.

Other research has found that the amount of taurine in energy drinks is so low that it won’t cause any side effects, but it won’t provide any of the desired benefits either. (56)

So while the taurine added to energy drinks has been deemed “safe but ineffective,” that doesn’t make energy drinks themselves safe.

They’re responsible for tens of thousands of visits to the emergency room each year, and sadly, a handful of deaths. (57)

There are much better and healthier ways to increase taurine, such as eating taurine-rich foods or taking a taurine supplement.

Taurine Supplement Dosage

There is no Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for taurine, but a typical dose is between 500-2,000 mg per day.

The long-term upper limit is thought to be 3,000 mg per day, but much higher doses are usually well tolerated. (58)

If you take more than you need, the excess taurine is simply excreted by your kidneys. (59)

Doctors sometimes recommend up to 6 grams per day for various medical conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, congestive heart failure, iron deficiency anemia, cystic fibrosis, and before and after surgery to boost the immune system. (60)

Taurine Side Effects

Taurine supplements are considered very safe.

However, it’s not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women as not enough is known about its safety during these times.

Discuss taking taurine with your doctor if you have bipolar disorder.

Taurine is helpful for many, but occasionally it makes mania symptoms worse. (61)

Additionally, it does not mix well with lithium, a common bipolar medication. (62)

Taurine affects your body’s ability to process lithium which could result in serious side effects.

Also, avoid taking taurine with beta-alanine, an amino acid supplement taken by athletes for enhanced endurance.

When taken together, too much beta-alanine can lead to taurine deficiency. (63)

Benefits of Taurine: Take the Next Step

Taurine is an amino acid usually thought of as a physical performance booster, but it provides many mental health benefits as well.

In the brain, it acts much like the relaxing neurotransmitter GABA, making taurine an effective natural remedy for anxiety, stress, and various psychiatric disorders.

Its neuroprotective capabilities can also help protect against age-related mental decline.

Taurine is also essential for the health of your heart, muscles, ears, and eyes.

Taurine supplements may offset the unpleasant side effects of accidental MSG consumption.

Keep in mind that energy drinks are not a good source of taurine.

If you need quick energy, you’re better off with a natural source of caffeine that doesn’t contain taurine.

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