When looking at the various products on the market to boost energy levels and prevent muscle damage in athletes, taurine is one common ingredient you will likely come across. So what really is taurine, what is the difference between taurine and caffeine on athletic performance, and are there any adverse effects? Let’s take a closer look.
What is Taurine?
Taurine is known as a conditionally essential sulfur-containing amino acid found in natural sources like beef, dark meat poultry, eggs, and shellfish. It is also a common ingredient found in popular energy drinks such as Red Bull, Monster, and Rockstar and pre-workout supplements such as C4 Sport. Taurine has also been thought to have antioxidant properties, but the jury is still out on that claim.
What is the difference between Taurine and Caffeine?
While many may assume taurine is used in energy drinks and pre-workout products to produce a stimulating effect, it actually does the opposite. Taurine acts as a central nervous system depressant, which means it produces a calming effect. The main reason it is used in some energy drinks is likely due to the claims that it can have a beneficial effect in cognitive performance (focus) and exercise capacity, yet sadly recent research suggests that these claims are probably nothing more than that at this point.
On the other hand, caffeine has been widely studied and acts a central nervous system stimulant, which has been shown by a significant amount of scientific evidence to enhance performance and alertness, especially in endurance athletes. Caffeine content and additional active ingredients in products does seem to affect the degree to which it produces positive effects, yet higher doses of caffeine isn’t always better.
Are there limits for Taurine or Caffeine intake?
There has not been enough research to say definitively if there is a safe upper limit for taurine intake. The average adult typically can expect to get about 50 mg – 200 mg of taurine per day through their diet alone, which is sufficient for normal body functioning. Someone who consumes a vegan of vegetarian diet will naturally have a lower taurine intake as many sources of come from animal products (which are not a staple in a vegan diet…).
In comparison, typical energy drinks contain high levels (around 1000 mg in one serving!) of taurine. Studies have been done showing safe intakes of up to 3000 mg daily; however, there has not been enough research to determine long-term effects of high-dose supplementation. So, no, do NOT leave this blog and run to your nearest convenience store to pick up 3 energy drinks to get 3000 mg of taurine. Please.
For healthy adults, the FDA recommends to limit to 400 mg of caffeine or less per day, which is about the amount of caffeine found in 4-5 AVERAGE cups of coffee (average does not mean a triple shot espresso for anyone who needed clarification). Any more has been shown to have adverse side effects.
Are there any known health risks associated with Taurine supplementation?
According to the limited amount of research to date on taurine intake, there are no known adverse health effects of natural intake or supplementation. Some individuals have reported vomiting, liver pain, headache, and stomach pain following intake of a supplement containing taurine; however, it is unclear whether or not the adverse effects were produced by the taurine itself or additional ingredients present in the product, such as artificial sweeteners or herbal supplements. So, it is generally thought that taurine itself is a safe supplement with few, if any, negative side effects.
On the other hand, high amounts of caffeine have been shown to produce some scary effects when consumed in excessive amounts. While lower concentrations of caffeine intake are generally safe, some known effects of higher doses of caffeine intake include increased heart rate or irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, decreased quality of sleep, and increased symptoms of anxiety.
Story time: There have been several instances where a client has struggled to sleep at night (might sound familiar so far?). While going through their dietary recall, it is revealed that they are consuming coffee late into the afternoon (more than one time as a bed time snack…). It is recommended by the Sleep Foundation that caffeine intake be cut off a minimum of 6 hours prior to bed time. So, needless to say, that bedtime cup of joe was the culprit of poor quality of sleep. If you’re noticing sleep disruptions, watch out for this one easy change.
What is the impact of Taurine supplementation on Athletic Performance?
The claims made in support of taurine supplementation on exercise performance (or really health in general) are going to make it sound amazing. These are the claims being touted by energy drink manufacturers who use taurine as an ingredient. But unfortunately, according to current scientific evidence (from sound studies), taurine probably isn’t as wonderful as one might be led to think.
The few studies that do support the positive claims made, such as the proclaimed ability of taurine to decrease muscle damage or muscle soreness following a workout, or the ability to create small positive effects on cardiovascular endurance and stamina, are mostly small and/or flawed.
First off, the sample sizes in these studies are very small, which makes it very difficult to translate any outcome to the general population. One study on trained middle-distance runners found that taurine supplementation did produce a small yet significant improvement in 3-km time trial results . But, the sample size was 8. They were all male. They were all TRAINED middle-distance runners. And it is a HUGE stretch to assume that the same positive effect can be expected in the general population of athletes from beginner to elite across all sports or lifestyles.
Many of the studies also include very specific populations, again making it difficult to say the results will work across the board. One review article looking into taurine supplementation with congestive heart failure (CHF) patients showed that when they took taurine supplements, they did have improvement in their exercise capacity . But again, the study was small, and outcomes found in CHF patients completing exercise are not likely to be typical of EVERYONE taking the supplement before completing exercise.
Not to mention, when taurine supplementation has been evaluated in its ability to produce any effects in exercise capacity, it is usually done in the presence of caffeine. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, the positive effect produced by taurine on exercise performance were all in the presence of caffeine (aka caffeine was most likely the cause for producing the benefits, not the taurine…) .
There are also many studies that have found no improvement in athletic performance following consumption of taurine supplements. One for example looked at the effects in competitive swimmers with high taurine concentration supplementation (6000 mg!!) prior to a swim event. There was no significant difference between the group who had taken the huge amount of taurine vs the one who hadn’t .
What are the Effects of Caffeine supplementation on Athletic Performance?
Caffeine has been studied much more extensively on its ability to positively affect exercise performance. In a meta analysis published in the Journal Frontiers in Physiology it was shown that in the 9 observed studies, caffeine had the ability to produce improvement in high-intensity endurance exercise, such as running and swimming, especially noted in the improvement in times and VO2 max .
Another study looked at repeated tests on the same individuals and was able to produce favorable results each time, expanding the claim that caffeine can cause positive effects on exercise capacity . And although it is likely there are many factors that play a role in caffeine’s ability to improve performance, which one review article points out could be daily habits in caffeine consumption, gender, time of consumption prior to exercise, etc, it is still shown that caffeine generally has a positive influence on performance .
A word on Supplements in General…
Supplements fall under a multi-billion-dollar industry that is highly unregulated by the FDA. While some supplements have a lot of sound research backing the benefits and minimizing the risks, each supplement is consumed in 100% trust of the company providing it.
There are several third-party testing designations available, such as NSF and USP, each with its own standards on how they evaluate supplements. However, even when a product claims to be third party tested, it is not a fool-proof way to GUARANTEE that what is supposed to be in the product is in the product, what is not supposed to be in the product is not in the product, and that the product produces desired or advertised effects.
When consuming a balanced diet rich in nutrient-dense foods, such as lean protein, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates, supplements are usually not necessary. And you can’t out-supplement poor diet quality.
Unlike the supplement industry, the food industry has strict specifications that must be met and it is highly regulated to ensure public safety. So, unless there is a specific reason that a supplement becomes necessary to bridge the gap for a nutrient deficiency or medical condition, especially for athletes or those with medical conditions, it is usually best to obtain the vast majority of nutrition from food.
So. What is the Bottom Line?
Taurine supplementation is unlikely to produce any significant negative effect to the human body; however, the effectiveness of the supplement on sports performance remains unclear. It is unlikely that there will be enough of a difference to matter.
Caffeine has been shown to enhance workouts, yet it is important to understand that in excessive amounts, caffeine can produce dangerous side effects, especially in athletes who are undergoing a significant amount of stress to begin with.
For athletes that get drug tested as part of their clearance for competition, it is highly recommended to avoid supplements all together to avoid risking eligibility. Especially for supplements like taurine that have little conclusive evidence of producing any noticeable changes, it is probably not worth it.
While it is ultimately up to each individual what they decide to consume, it is always recommended to speak with a medical professional before taking ANY supplement, regardless what it is, in order to prevent any unwanted interactions with medications or underlying health conditions that could potentially be deadly.
Post By: Sarah Atlas RD, LD
Reviewed by: Leanne Nieto, RD, LD
Nutrition Aligned LLC
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