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Ep. 37 – Energy drinks and healthy aging

Most energy drinks are outright dismissed because of the sugar and caffeine content. However, recent research indicates they just may contain one ingredient that could be one of the keys to healthy aging. Dr. Chet looks at the latest research on this edition of Straight Talk on Health

Welcome to Straight Talk on Health. I’m your host Dr. Chet Zelasko. Straight Talk on Health is a joint production with WGVU in Grand Rapids MI. I examine the world of health. Whether it’s research that makes the news, another miracle diet, or a new food fad, I look at the science behind them, and let you know whether it’s real or not. You can check out other things that I do on my website Drchet.com and sign up for my free emails.

Energy drinks are almost universally condemned by healthcare professionals, be the nutritionists, physicians, or those who practice alternative medicine. They feel there's just too much sugar, caffeine, and other things in them that can be dangerous when consumed in high levels. I don't fall into that category because I believe we can use everything in a responsible fashion. Sure, if you have gamers who sit at their couch for 12 to 14 hours at a time and all they consume are energy drinks and junk food, I don't think that's very healthy. But used as designed, as a way to provide nutrients to stimulate energy production, I don't have a problem with that.

Full disclosure: at one point in time, years ago, I was a consultant to a company that made energy drinks. What made them unique at the time was that they were sugar free. Now there are many varieties of sugar free energy drinks in the market. I no longer consult with any companies that make any type of food or nutritional products.

Back to the point of this STOH. Recent research has examined taurine, a semi essential amino acid, and I’ll explain what that means in a moment, as critical to aging. In fact, the title of the research paper is Taurine As A Driver Of Aging. It was published in the journal science in June of 2023. It is Open Access if you're interested in reading the article itself.

Before we get into the study, I probably need to explain a little bit about what taurine is and what it does in the body. For decades, we've known that taurine contributes to cardiovascular health in some ways. Most likely, it is beneficial to cardiac tissue as high amounts are found in all types of muscle cells. But there is more. Taurine is vital for a person’s overall health. It is one of the most abundant amino acids in the muscle tissue, brain, and many other organs in the body.

Taurine is a sulfur-containing amino acid that can be derived from cysteine metabolism. It accounts for 50–60% of the free amino acid pool. Taurine is especially abundant in skeletal muscle. Rich sources of dietary taurine come from the consumption of animal proteins with shellfish, liver, and eggs containing the highest concentration of taurine per serving. By the way, most energy drinks have taurine in them as well at beneficial levels as we’ll see later.

Taurine plays a role in several essential body functions, such as regulating calcium levels in certain cells, manufacturing bile salts, balancing electrolytes in the body, and supporting the development of the nervous system. There is one more way that taurine may benefit us. Taurine appears to be important in mitochondrial health as well. Mitochondria, in effect, means more energy, both for the cells to do their job, and for us to have more energy. But a lack of taurine in the body may lead to a range of health complications, including kidney dysfunction, developmental disorders as babies and children do not make enough taurine at young ages, damage to eye tissues as well as cardiomyopathy, a weakness of the cardiac musculature which can lead to heart failure.

With the taurine basics in mind, there is one urban legend that needs to be mentioned. The taurine found in supplements and energy drinks are made in chemical plants, most likely from cysteine as the body does. It is not sourced from the testicles nor sperm of bulls. Someone decided that the bulls on the insignia of a popular brand of energy drinks meant that they were the source of the taurine--Taurus the bull? Too expensive if it were true and castrating the primary source of beef reproduction wouldn’t be good for the cattle industry anyway.

Let’s look at the study. It was unique. In the first part of the study, the researchers examine serum taurine levels at various ages during the lifespan of several species. They looked at mice, macaques, worms, yeast, and human beings. The results were absolutely clear. As these species got older, the taurine levels decreased substantially. While there were certainly other things going on metabolically in all species, the stark drop of taurine certainly appeared to be related to decline of many bodily systems. But this doesn't really test the question so they supplemented the diets of various species to see what, if any, impact it would have.

The problem with supplementation in humans is that we just live too long to effectively test that hypothesis. But it can be tested in other species. Taurine supplementation significantly increased the lifespan of worms and mice as well as in monkeys. What they could not figure out was the mechanism involved as multiple body symptom systems have to be involved. But the only conclusion they could make is that supplementing with taurine extended the lifespan. Combine that with the decline that occurs with aging in humans and the associated increase of degenerative conditions, and it appears that taurine is critical for human health as well to decrease some of the manifestations of aging.

The only real question would be the best way to increase taurine levels. Would there be any downside to taking a taurine supplement? Or should we focus on increasing the protein in our diet, specifically the animal protein?

Here's something else to consider before we get to that point. One of the characteristics of aging is a decrease in protein intake. There is no reason that I could find for that to happen. Maybe the desire to chew decreases with age or poor dental care may have an impact on the chewing process. Protein powders would have to have taurine added for adults as it is not one of the essential amino acids that are popular today.

I think it should be a combination of both sources. I think that protein intake should be increased once a person reaches 50 years of age. How much? It should be at least one gram per kilogram body weight. That would mean it would be roughly half a person's body weight in grams. If you weigh 200 pounds, you should probably get 100 to 120 grams of protein per day. It may be prudent for those over 70 to try and exceed that amount. Not just for the taurine but also to stem the loss of muscle mass. It may require a concerted effort to eat that much protein.

Let's turn to taurine supplementation. Taurine is typically offered in 500 milligram capsules. When you look at the research, the amount used in studies range from 500 milligrams per day up to 6 grams per day. There were a couple of studies lasting at least six months long. Taurine supplementation seems safe.

Here's what I would do. I would increase protein intake to levels I described to one-half body weight in grams. The highest taurine levels would be found in shellfish, eggs, and liver as well as, you guessed it, energy drinks if you want to use them. But don't forget, all animal protein will count because it will certainly have the two primary amino acids that taurine is made from in methionine and cysteine.

In terms of supplementation, certainly check with your physician. But of all the things that you may want to do with supplements, taking an amino acid supplement should not impact any issues with your physician or your medication. I think that starting with one gram of taurine per day for a minimum of 60 days is a good place to begin. At the end of 60 days, make a decision whether to increase it or let it ride. Increasing taurine levels is another step in aging with the vengeance. Until next time this is Dr. Chet Zelasko saying health is a choice people. Choose wisely today and every day.

Dr. Chet Zelasko is a scientist, speaker, and author. Dr. Chet has a Ph.D. and MA in Exercise Physiology and Health Education from Michigan State University and a BS in Physical Education from Canisius College. He’s certified by the American College of Sports Medicine as a Health and Fitness Specialist, belongs to the American Society of Nutrition, and has conducted research and been published in peer-reviewed journals. You can find him online at drchet.com.
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