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Taurine + Energy Drinks: Meant to Be or Doomed?
By Sonal Patel
Image from www.selfhelpdaily.com
Red Bull, Rip It, Energy Fizz, Boost, Crunk, Pimp Juice. The list of names can go on and on. Ask any sleep deprived college student what they use for a pick me up, and they can rattle off a number of energy drinks. Many college students, including me, know that it is not healthy to consume many energy drinks. The drinks come with a warning that states “not recommended for use by children, pregnant women, or people sensitive to caffeine.” You have probably wondered what’s so bad about energy drinks and why they carry a warning while carbonated soft drinks usually do not. I was particularly intrigued and frightened when a friend said “Don’t drink that stuff, it has taurine in it. It’s gonna kill your heart.” Promptly after hearing this, I went to wikipedia and looked up taurine. I did not find anything alarming about what was listed and thus dismissed it out of my mind. Similarly, other people maybe mislead also if they only research the effects of taurine. The danger lays in the combined effect of caffeine and taurine, which are the powerful and important ingredients in numerous energy drinks. As more and more people start using energy drinks, it is important to be well informed on the possible dangers of these “pick me ups.”
A popular misconception is that taurine is derived from the testicles of a bull. While the word taurine has its root in the Latin word Taurus, meaning bull, it was originally found in the bile of an ox (an ox is a castrated bull). Taurine can also be isolated from the urine of female cattle. Commercially though the taurine in energy drinks is made synthetically (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taurine).
Taurine, also known as 2-aminoethanesulfonic acid, is a nonessential amino acid. It is the most abundant free amino acid in many tissues. Taurine is particularly high in foods such as meat and fish proteins. It is synthesized in the liver via the cysteine sulfonic pathway (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taurine). In newborns, taurine is essential as they cannot make it. Furthermore, it is different from most other amino acids in that it is not incorporated into proteins. Nevertheless, it does play many important roles in the body one which is metabolism (http://www.healthy.net/scr/article.asp?ID=1971). Taurine is found in the central nervous system, skeletal muscle, and heart. However, it is more heavily concentrated in heart tissues and the brain (http://www.healthy.net/scr/article.asp?ID=1971). In electrically active tissues such as the heart and brain, it helps stabilize cell membranes. It has been implicated in the following physiological phenomenon: inhibitory neurotransmission, long-term potentiation in the striatum/hippocampus, feedback inhibition of neutrophil/macrophage respiratory bursts, adipose tissue regulation, and calcium homeostasis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taurine). Conversely, the evidence for taurine in these roles is not as great as its role in bile acid synthesis and osmoregulation.
Many claims have been made about the beneficial roles of taurine in the body. As a result, it is sold as a supplement on the internet and in some drug stores. While it has an important role in the body, not many studies have been done to fully validate all these claims. Many of the studies are still being carried out on rodents thus we do not if the results from these studies can be safely applied to humans. The following lists some of the reasons used by taurine manufactures as to why taurine should be taken as a supplement (http://www.1fast400.com/a47_Taurine_Information.html).
- Improves exercise performance in rodents
- Protects the heart from ischemic damage
- Prevents hypertension in rats fed a high fructose diet & rats treated with alcohol
- Improves memory in memory-impaired rats
- Aids in the treatment of cystic fibrosis
- Aging associated with decline in taurine
Why People Claim to drink Energy Drinks?
- mixing alcohol and energy drinks can reduce the severity of a hangover, protect the liver, keep one from getting drowsy. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/4563760.stm)
- helps one stay awake longer
- improves short term memory
- increases alertness
- Gives a burst of energy
- Students claim it helps them perform better on a test
Why are People Worried?
- Mixing an energy drink and alcohol can significantly dehydrate a person since they are both diuretics. Dehydration stresses the heart. Mixing stimulants and depressants can lead to abnormal heart rhythms and heart problems in the future. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_bull)
- 3 people in Sweden died after drinking Red Bull though a definitive link has not been established between the deaths and Red Bull. (http://www.1fast400.com/a47_Taurine_Information.html)
- There are no conclusive, intensive studies on the combined effect of taurine and caffeine on humans. As a result, energy drinks such as Red Bull have been banned in Norway, Denmark, Uruguay, and France. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_bull)
- Rats fed taurine exhibited bizarre behavior such as anxiety, irritability, high sensitivity to noise, and self-mutilations. (http://www.1fast400.com/a47_Taurine_Information.html).
- Energy drinks do not replenish the body after strenuous activity such as exercise; in fact, it can cause dehydration which puts a strain on the heart. A basketball player collapsed on the court and later died after drinking 4 cans of Red Bull before the game. Again, a definitive link between Red Bull and the death was not established. (http://www.1fast400.com/a47_Taurine_Information.html).
Energy Drinks and the Heart
A study by Baum and Weiss (2001) examined the effects of taurine and caffeine on the heart in thirteen young athletes. The athletes performed endurance exercises three times – each time imbibing a different type of drink. Before exercise, Red Bull containing both taurine and caffeine, a similar drink without taurine, containing caffeine, and a “placebo” drink without taurine or caffeine were drank by the subjects in a double blind, cross over study. Cardiac measurements were taken before the drinks, 40 minutes after the drinks prior to the exercise, and in the regeneration period after exercise. Stroke volume was significantly increased in the “red bull” group, and also, in the same group, there was increase in the diastolic intake velocity (related to ventricular function of the heart). The same observation was made in the caffeine group without the ventricular function. This led to the hypothesis that the combined effect of taurine and caffeine enhances ventricular functions. For this study, I feel the sample size is too small for the conclusion to be definitively applied to the general population.
Well being, mood, memory
- Seidl, et al (2000) did a study to determine whether caffeine and taurine containing energy drinks stimulate cognitive performance and well-being. Seidl, et al (2000) performed a double blinded, placebo controlled study using 10 graduate students. The experimental group ingested a capsule containing caffeine, taurine, glucuronolactone, and the placebo group received a control capsule. The measurements were taken at night, prior to and starting one hour after consumption of energy drink ingredients or placebo. The results showed motor reaction times were significantly longer compared to the baseline measurements for the placebo group but remained unchanged in the energy drink group. Additionally, the evaluated feelings for well being, total scores, vitality scores and social extrovertedness scores were again unchanged for the energy drink group but significantly decreased for the placebo group. The researchers concluded the caffeine, taurine, and glucuronolactone had positive effects on human mental performance and mood. Furthermore, since half the subjects were non-caffeine users, the positive effects could not be due to restoration of plasma caffeine levels to normal following caffeine withdrawal. As with the other studies, these one also has a small sample size thus making it hard to generalize the results to a larger population. Also, we do not if the results were due to caffeine alone or the combined effects of caffeine, taurine, and glucuronolactone. There are other studies by Alford, et al. (2001) and Warburton, et al. (2001) in which caffeinated taurine drinks improved information processing and increased subjective alertness, concentration, and physical endurance compared to the placebo group (no caffeine or taurine). Again, the same problems are encountered. The sample size is too small (36 and 42 respectively), and possibility of the positive effects being solely due to caffeine are not accounted for.
Alcohol and Energy Drinks
- Ferreira, et al (2006) evaluated the effect of mixing alcohol and energy drinks in comparison to consuming alcohol or energy drinks alone. Twenty-sex young, healthy volunteers completed three experimental sessions in random order, 7 days apart: alcohol alone, energy drink alone, and energy drink plus alcohol. The volunteer’s breath alcohol concentration, subjective sensations of intoxication, objective effects on their motor coordination and visual reaction time were evaluated. From the results, the researchers concluded that the subjective perceptions of headache, weakness, dry mouth, and impairment of motor coordination were less intense when alcohol was combined with an energy drink. However, in the objective measures of motor coordination, visual reaction time, and breath alcohol concentration for energy drink plus alcohol were the same as alcohol alone. The results basically show that a person subjectively feels less intoxicated than they actually are. As with all the studies, I feel this one should also have greater sample size in order for the results to be more definitive.
Alcohol and Taurine in rats
Kerai, et al. (2005) did a study to determine the effect of taurine and alcohol on the rat liver. Alcohol was administered to female rats for 28 days. This led to hepatic steatosis and lipid peroxidation in the rats. However, when taurine was administered along with the alcohol, there was a reduction in hepatic steatosis and completely prevented the lipid peroxidation. This data shows that taurine can have protective benefits for the liver for problems caused by alcohol. Nevertheless, this study was conducted on rats thus, we do not know if it would have a similar effect on humans. In addition, we do not know if the taurine in energy drinks can have the same effect. The taurine may act differently when it is present with caffeine and other energy drink ingredients.
Diuretic potential of energy drinks.
- Riesenhuber, et al. (2006) wanted to determine the diuretic potential of energy drinks. They wanted to test whether taurine also induces diuresis along with caffeine. After restraining from fluids for 12 hours, 12 men were given 4 drinks ---- contained both caffeine and taurine, lacked taurine, lacked caffeine, lacked both. Mixed model analysis showed urinary output was significantly increased by caffeine but not by taurine. The researchers concluded taurine played no role in fluid balance in moderately dehydrated males. Consequently, the diuretic potential of energy drinks is no different from other caffeinated drinks. As with all the other studies, I feel more the study needs to be carried out with greater and more varied sample size so that the results can be generalized to the public.
Yes, energy drinks do make one feel more alert, improve mental performance, and decrease the negative subjective feelings associated with alcohol consumption. On the other side, energy drinks also affect the heart rhythm and do not decrease the level of intoxication when consuming alcohol. As for the issue of health benefits/risks of taurine in energy drinks, the overall conclusion is one of uncertainty. There have not been enough studies done on it to determine the long-term effects of caffeinated taurine drinks. Deaths have been linked to the use of caffeinated taurine drinks, but even here, we do not know for certain if energy drinks played a role in the deaths or not. The uncertainty of possible health risks is why some countries have banned energy drinks containing taurine and why Canada and U.S. require a warning label on energy drinks. The uncertainty due to lack of solid data maybe enough reason for some people not to consume energy drinks. For those who do continue to use energy drinks, steps can be taken to reduce the risk of harming oneself:
- Do not mix alcohol and energy drinks à it can cause dehydration because it contains caffeine, which is a diuretic; mixing stimulants and depressants can lead to heart arrhythmia and future heart problems. Additionally, although one may not feel intoxicated, your motor coordination and visual perceptions are impaired, and this can lead to an underestimation of how intoxicated one really is.
- Do not consume energy drinks before or after strenuous activity such as exercise à energy drinks do not hydrate the body; this puts a strain on the heart. Some of the deaths allegedly due to energy drinks occurred when a person consumed energy drinks before and/or after performing strenuous activity.
- Do not drink more than 2-3 energy drinks per day or in one sitting à people who have done this complained of discomfort, nausea, stomach pains, gas, and/or sleepiness. For me, even drinking one can in one sitting leads to trembling and a racing heart. Studies have not been conducted as to why this occurs; yet, common sense tells you that these symptoms cannot be good for the body. As with most things, moderation is key.
- Not recommended for children and pregnant or breast-feeding women à Many parents don’t let children drink coffee because it contains caffeine then why should children be allowed to ingest energy drinks which contain equal, if not more, amount of caffeine. For pregnant and breast-feeding women, energy drinks are not recommended because we do not know how energy drinks affect a developing child.
- Not recommended for caffeine-sensitive people à energy drinks contain lots of caffeine.
- Again, we do not know how the combination the caffeine and taurine effects health long term; thus, it would be wise to try healthier methods for staying awake and alert such as exercising and getting enough sleep. As a college student, I know this is not always possible. If one cannot give up energy drinks until we know they are safe, my advice would be to save energy drinks for when you really, really need them and not to drink them for fun or on a regular basis.
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