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Can Energy Drinks or Taurine Supplements Give You Wings?

It's time to crunch some numbers.

This article was first published in The Montreal Gazette.

I came across Bryan Johnson, self-described “professional rejuvenation athlete,” thanks to Red Bull, the world’s most popular “energy drink.”

I was looking into which ingredients, if any, may justify the slogan that “Red Bull gives you wings.”

In addition to caffeine, which really is a stimulant, the beverage contains some B vitamins, glucuronolactone and taurine. If someone is truly deficient in B vitamins, they may indeed lack energy, but such a deficiency would be rare in the developed world, especially among people who can fork out $3 for an energy drink.

Glucuronolactone may have a slight effect on energy if you are a rat forced to swim for 30 minutes after being injected with the substance. But even here, there is a but. Glucuronolactone failed to affect time to exhaustion in the first 30-minute swim, but improved performance relative to saline in the second and third swim.

Then we come to taurine. This is an amino acid that is found widely in the body, although its function is not clear. Unlike other amino acids, it isn’t incorporated into proteins, but is needed for the normal function of skeletal muscle and heart muscle. In theory, exercise capacity may be limited in individuals with a low level of taurine, but such a deficiency is virtually impossible given that taurine occurs amply in the diet, and in any case, can be synthesized in the body from the common amino acid cysteine. The name “taurine” derives from “taurus,” the Latin word for bull, but the term was not inspired by the strength of the animal — which if you ask any matador, is quite impressive. It was coined on account of taurine having first been isolated from bull bile in 1827 by German scientists Friedrich Tiedemann and Leopold Gmelin.

While taurine will not give you wings, it does have some interesting features.

In humans, taurine levels decline with age and lower levels of taurine and its metabolites are associated with obesity, diabetes, hypertension and inflammation. That brings up the question of potential benefits of taurine supplements.

Can it be the “the elixir of life within us,” as suggested by Dr. Vijay Yadav, the Columbia University geneticist who was the lead researcher in a study published in the prestigious journal Science with the alluring title Taurine Deficiency As a Driver of Aging? The study involved more than 50 scientists around the world and describes feeding taurine to mice, monkeys and worms to investigate the compound’s effect on aging. The lifespan of the treated mice increased by 10 to 12 per cent compared with a control group that received no supplement, and the treated worms also lived longer.

What makes the report even more interesting that the mice not only lived longer, but also had an improved “health span.” After all, living longer isn’t much fun if you are not healthy.

The researchers found that treated mice fared better than the controls when it came to the functioning of their pancreas, brain, gut and immune system. They also had improved bone strength and stronger muscles. Damage to DNA, a hallmark of aging, was also reduced. The trial was not long enough to study the life span of the monkeys, but like the mice, these animals also showed an improvement in parameters of health. All of this would seem to indicate that we should be quickly ordering taurine supplements, or at least reaching for that can of Red Bull to slow down the curse of aging.

Whoa! Time to crunch some numbers.

The subjects in the experiments were given a gram of taurine per kg body weight. For a human weighing 65 kg (143 lbs), this translates to 65 grams. A can of Red Bull contains 1 gram. Even the most devoted Red Bull fan would rule out consuming 65 cans of the beverage. Would a much smaller dose of taurine, a few grams a day, be of any use? Without a human clinical trial, we cannot even make a guess. But Bryan Johnson and his advisers do make a guess. Johnson takes three grams of the supplement a day. Along with 26 other supplements. And that is how I came across this biohacker. His name repeatedly popped up when I was looking into the potential anti-aging effects of taurine.

The man is quite a phenomenon. He is a multimillionaire who made a fortune by selling the payment processing business he founded to PayPal and now devotes his life to slowing down the march of time. During interviews, he often wears a t-shirt with “DON’T DIE” in bold lettering. You can buy one from his company, Blueprint, along with the supplements that he takes. The shirt only costs 24 bucks, but if you want to follow in Johnson’ s footsteps, the supplements can set you back hundreds a month.

Although Johnson will make statements like “death may not be inevitable,” I doubt he actually thinks he can outrun the Grim Reaper. He looks on himself as an experiment to see whether the biological clock can be slowed by incorporating the results of scientific studies into one’s life. He jumps on any study that shows some benefit in some published trial, be it in cell culture, worm, fly or animal. Then he takes a giant leap of faith that it may benefit humans.

Johnson, who has no scientific background, has put together a regime that he claims can reverse biologic aging and extend life. It would take too long to list all the supplements he takes, but some you may recognize include glucosamine, turmeric, cocoa flavanols, melatonin, coenzyme Q10, ashwagandha, sulforaphane, genistein, hyaluronic acid, testosterone, garlic, ginger and taurine. Then there’s N-acetylcysteine, nicotinamide riboside, tyrosine, pea protein, calcium alpha-ketoglutarate and nordihydroguaiaretic acid. You can even add such prescription drugs as metformin, rapamycin and 17-alpha estradiol that have hinted at longevity. Besides supplements, Bryan follows a vegan diet, fasts for 18 hours a day, engages in a brutal exercise regimen and clamps a machine on his abdomen that he says produces the same effect as 20,000 situps by stimulating his core muscles.

He also emphasizes the importance of sleep, although I’m not sure how well he sleeps with a device strapped to his penis to monitor the extent of his night-time erections, which he claims is a measure of aging.

How is Johnson doing? He certainly looks ripped, and his frequent MRIs and tests for numerous biomarkers indicate that his biological age is indeed younger than his actual age. Pretty interesting, but still, this is a study of n=1, which in science no way constitutes proof.

As far as taurine goes, any argument that it is responsible for giving Red Bull wings just doesn’t fly.


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