Taurine, a semi-essential amino acid and supplement, may also hold the secret to longevity — at least for mice, monkeys and worms, a new study finds.
The paper, published Thursday in the journal Science, found the micronutrient was able to improve the health of animal models and even extend the lifespans of middle-aged mice by around 12 per cent.
That said, the authors warn people not to take taurine supplements until they’ve finished clinical testing on humans in the coming years.
“This (study) showed that taurine-supplemented mice not only lived longer, they lived healthier lives,” said lead author Vijay Yadav, a molecular physiologist and assistant professor of genetics and development at Columbia University, to the Star.
In a news release, Yadav added: “This study suggests that taurine could be an elixir of life within us that helps us live longer and healthier lives.”
Taurine levels drop as we age
Taurine, a naturally occurring amino acid produced by our own bodies, can primarily be found in protein-rich foods like meat and fish. The nutrient has many functions, with past studies linking the molecule with bone development, immune function, obesity and more.
Yadav’s project started “serendipitously” around 11 years ago, when his lab noticed taurine levels in the blood dropped dramatically as people aged: “We observed that taurine levels were declining with age, especially compared to embryos — in fact, embryos in humans have five to ten fold higher levels of taurine” than older people, he said.
They don’t know exactly when or why taurine levels drop, and are actively looking into it.
Can taurine help us live longer?
In combination with its purported health benefits, the authors hypothesized a lack of the nutrient could drive aging. Their theory was put to the test in roughly 250, 14-month-old mice (around 45 in human years).
In the end, female mice who took taurine daily lived 12 per cent longer than their counterparts, while males lived 10 per cent longer on average, the paper reads. That’s equivalent to seven or eight human years, Yadav said.
Looking into the animals’ organ functions, the researchers found the taurine mice lived healthier lives too — “They had less fat, but they had more bone density. They were able to handle glucose better. They had better muscle functions. They were less anxious, they had more memory, and their immune system looked like a younger animal’s,” Yadav said.
Next, they repeated the same test on worms and monkeys. In worms, the supplement “significantly extended” their lifespans depending on the dosage received, with median lifespans increasing 10 to 23 per cent in those given higher concentrations the paper read.
Although they were unable to measure taurine’s impact on monkey lifespans — that would take 30 years, Yadav said — they found the nutrient gave significant health boosts. “Taurine-supplemented monkeys had less body weight, they had less fat, they had more bone density. Their fasting glucose (level) was lower. They had less liver damage and their immune system was functioning better,” Yadav said.
Annalijn Conklin, assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of British Columbia who is unaffiliated with the study, said: “I think it’s clear (from the paper)… that taurine is important in a number of pathways that are linked to age-related illnesses and outcomes.
“But I don’t know if (taurine) is necessarily the answer to everything,” she continued, adding that people shouldn’t see it as the “holy grail of anti-aging.”
“It’s always a combination of a number of factors” that contribute to aging, Conklin said, and we don’t yet know how important taurine is or where it fits with other factors. “Working out where taurine sits on that causal pie of factors that lead to age-related outcomes is, I think, what the science should be about.”
What about humans?
The researchers are currently trying to raise funding for clinical trials, which, “as soon as we find the money, will take three to four years,” Yadav said. He urges people not to take taurine supplements until this process is complete, in case there are unforeseen side effects.
That said, his lab did survey the blood of nearly 12,000 humans with known health conditions, taken during a previous study. They found that lower levels of taurine in these subjects were associated with: “More obesity, more BMI, more liver damage, more hypertension and more inflammation, among other diseases,” Yadav said.
Next, his team examined how human taurine levels change with exercise. They found taurine “significantly increased” following a workout, moreso in sedentary people than athletes, the paper reads.
“We are very optimistic that these studies hopefully will translate to humans,” he said.
For her part, Conklin noted it’s a “big leap” going from animals to human models. While she was glad the team studied humans, she wished they included a more diverse sample — the exercise experiment was only performed on young men, for example, and may produce different effects in women or older people.
“I would caution readers around how much this can be given significant implications to whole populations,” she said. “The human translation of these findings is still up in the air for me. I have a lot of questions.”
Should I take taurine supplements?
The answer is no, at least not yet. Yadav says they need a “large, multicentre, multinational trial with thousands of people” to truly iron out any side effects. Notably, all the humans they tested so far were of European descent.
Yadav especially warns against energy drinks, some of which may contain taurine: “You may see reports of energy drinks increasing lifespan and healthspan. That is absolutely wrong,” he said. What potential health benefit the drinks provide is far outweighed by their sugar content and other additives.
He also warns against taking commercially available taurine supplements: “We do not know whether they are adulterated, how pure the taurine is,” he said. That’s because natural health supplements like taurine can be sold as either drugs or food, according to Health Canada, and the latter is subject to far less stringent requirements.
“Most of the other anti-ageing interventions are drugs or synthetic molecules,” Yadav said. “If it turns out (it works in humans), we have found a molecule that is natural, produced in your own body, can be easily obtainable in a supplement and can increase the health and life of a human being.”
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