Energy Drinks, Taurine, Caffeine, and Addiction: A Complicated Picture

I recently hosted Dr. Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, a scientist at the City College of New York, on my podcast, This World of Humans. The subject of our conversation was her work on taurine, an ingredient found in popular energy drinks, and its effects on the brain. There are tons of surprising twists and turns in this story and when it comes to the health risks and benefits of this quirky amino acid, the news is not all bad!

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Dr. Salas-Ramirez studies taurine from a neurological and developmental point of view and she is driven to discover and understand the risks and benefits of taurine, whatever they may be. This is clearly an important area of study because billions of cans of energy drinks are being guzzled every year, a large portion by teenagers and young adults, whose brains are still developing. (In the US alone, energy drink sales topped $3 billion in 2018.)

Because energy drinks, such as Monster, Rockstar, Jolt, and, of course, Red Bull, are often consumed together with alcohol and sometimes combined with other recreational drugs as well, a great deal of the research is focused on addiction. There are conflicting reports on whether taurine and energy drinks potentiate addiction and, as Dr. Salas-Ramirez has found, there seem to be sex differences as well. But the effects of taurine go way beyond addiction, and so does Dr. Salas-Ramirez’s research.

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Different energy drinks have different formulas, of course, but the key ingredients in most of them are caffeine, which is already familiar to everyone, and taurine, which usually isn’t. Taurine is often called an amino acid, but it isn’t one in the traditional sense, either structurally or functionally. It is not used by cells to make proteins, for example. Instead, taurine participates in a variety of processes throughout the body from osmoregulation in the kidney to the conjugation of bile acids in the liver.

Taurine is “essential” in the sense that it performs important functions, but it is not essential in the dietary sense because our bodies can make all the taurine that we need. We make it by converting from the precursor cysteine, which is one of the traditional amino acids and one that we can also make for ourselves. In other words, we don’t have a nutritional necessity for taurine, but it is found abundantly in all animal products. (Cats, however, have lost their ability to make taurine which is part of why they are “obligate carnivores.”)

Taurine is added to energy drinks because it has been widely reported, and confirmed by some studies, that large doses can give us a boost in energy, ability to focus, memory recall, and even athletic performance. It is not entirely clear how it does this, but its effects in the central nervous system seem to be the most likely explanation. Taurine potentiates calcium signaling, which is key to how muscles contract and how neurons communicate with each other, and this seems likely to play a role in taurine’s central nervous system effects. But there’s definitely more going on that we haven’t fully worked out.

In her laboratory, Dr. Salas-Ramirez explores the effects of taurine on the brains of rodents and has made surprising discoveries when it comes to addiction, memory, and other cognitive functions. The effects of taurine appear to be widely different effects based on age, sex, and, perhaps most importantly, interaction with other drugs. For example, for older women, taurine may actually provide a little boost in memory.  The theme of this fascinating episode is: It’s complicated. In our interview, almost every time I thought we had reached a solid conclusion, Dr. Salas-Ramirez would interject with a, “Well, yeah, but…”

Check out episode #10 of TWOH in which I sit down with Dr. Salas-Ramirez as she walks me through what we know about the effects of taurine on the brain. It’s not all bad news! Listen to the episode to find out why.

As always, don’t forget to subscribe and tell all your friends!

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-NHL

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