A dietary supplement that could actually work

A dietary supplement that could actually work

Readers of this column will know that I am very skeptical of dietary supplements. So could you imagine my reaction when I saw the headlines a few days ago about Taurine, the elixir of life? (at CNN) and Supplement slows aging in mice and monkeys (NY Times).

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

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

First question: what is taurine? It’s an amino acid, but it’s not one of the 20 amino acids that make up all of your body’s proteins. It’s slightly different, and our bodies naturally produce it in small amounts. We need more than our bodies made when we were 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 diets: The best foods for taurine are meats, especially shrimp and other shellfish, but also beef and dark meat from chicken and turkey.

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

They then describe a series of experiments, mainly on mice but also on monkeys, in which they fed the animals relatively large amounts of taurine every day, and the results were truly impressive:

  1. Lifespan in mice increased by 10-12%.
  2. In mice that started supplementing taurine in middle age, lifespan increased by 18-25%.
  3. Bone density increased in female mice and osteoporosis appeared to be cured.
  4. Muscle strength increased in both males and females compared to mice not given taurine.
  5. The number of senescent cells that don’t do much except emit harmful inflammatory signals appeared to be reduced.

Sure, there is 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 transfer into humans. Then the scientists also conducted a study (a smaller one) on monkeys, which are genetically much closer to humans. This also had great results:

  1. Bone density increased in the spine and legs.
  2. Body fat was lower than that of monkeys not taking taurine.
  3. Several measures of inflammation decreased.

Monkeys live much longer than mice, so scientists don’t yet know whether taurine increases monkey lifespans, but all the signs are promising. I was skeptical going into this article but could not find any obvious flaws.

In an accompanying article in ScienceU. Penns 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 used extensively as a supplement in infant formula and energy drinks, with no known adverse effects.

However, the amounts used in the Columbia study were very high — much higher than what you’d get from energy drinks or even regular taurine supplements. I’ve researched a few and typical formulations offer 1000 or 2000 mg (that’s 1-2 grams) per day. The doses given to the monkeys in the study, when converted to a 150-pound person, equate to about 5500 mg (5.5 grams) per day. It’s not a lot by weight, and it would be easy enough to take that much taurine, but nobody knows the effects on humans of such large doses.

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

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