Header image by Philippe Alès (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
So you've put off writing that essay again, and now it's 11 o'clock the night before it's due! You have to stay up super-late (again) to get it done. But really, you couldn't have not watched the season premiere of The O.C.! So into the kitchen for a little pick-me-up... Coffee? Gross, no way. Red Bull? Much better idea!
Being the conscientious consumer you are, you take a look at the ingredients: Caffeine, good, you need that; sucrose, a source of energy...even better; taurine...wait, haven't you heard all kinds of stories about that stuff? There have been rumours going around that taurine comes from bull testicles (that's disgusting!). You may have also heard warnings about it being an illegal mood-lifting stimulant that was given to soldiers in Vietnam.
Neither of these urban legends are true. In fact, taurine is a non-essential amino acid that is naturally occurring in many living things. Furthermore, the taurine in Red Bull is artificially synthesized and not derived from bulls at all (especially not their testicles!). Taurine is a perfectly legal substance and is regulated by governmental agencies.
Did You Know?
Taurine is not only found in Red Bull, but also in baby food and cat food.
Essential amino acids must be taken in from the environment and are incorporated into proteins that your body makes. (NOTE: For more on DNA, see "Mutations...what's really behind the X-gene?"). Non-essential amino acids have a similar structure to essential amino acids, but have different functions in the cell.
In the human body, taurine functions in the brain and the heart to help stabilize cell membranes. It is also found in the gallbladder, eyes, and blood vessels. Taurine has also been shown to be involved in neurotransmission and neuromodulation. It is an inhibitory neuromodulator and has been shown to affect functions like heart rate and the amount of blood that the heart pumps with each beat, i.e. the stroke volume. (NOTE: for more on neurotransmission, see "ECSTASY or AGONY? Chemistry and Biology of a Stimulant")
Did You Know: Taurine is involved in transmission of neural signals and in neuromodulation.
Most humans make taurine naturally, but sometimes premature infants lack the enzyme that synthesizes it, so a lot of baby formulas contain it as a supplement. Cats also lack the ability to synthesize taurine, and without it they would die. Therefore, all cat foods have taurine added in. Without sufficient amounts of taurine, cats would be unable to digest their food and would have problems with blood circulation and some forms of neurotransmission.
Taurine acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter in most mammals. This means that it is released from a neuron to either stop or prevent firing of the next neuron. The body uses inhibitory neurotransmitters for processes like controlling blood pressure or pain. Without this inhibition, the affected cells might fire uncontrollably, which could cause seizures or chronic pain.
A lot of people drink Red Bull when they're studying or before tests, thinking it will boost their memory and performance. But does it help?
In 2006, a study was done to look at the combined effects of caffeine and taurine, the active ingredients in Red Bull, on the human body. College students were given 100mg of caffeine and 1000mg of taurine, similar to the amount found in one can of Red Bull, to test the effects of these compounds on memory, heart rate, and blood pressure. Researchers found that taurine had no effect on short-term memory, but that it did decrease heart rate and cause an increase in blood pressure when the subjects were given a stressful task.
Did You Know: Red Bull is not likely to help with shot-term memory, but it may help your body cope with stressful situations.
So, although taurine won't help you write an award winning essay, it looks like there really isn't anything wrong with ingesting it either, as long as you don't overdo it.
There is, however, some evidence that it's dangerous to mix taurine and alcohol. It's already known that mixing a lot of caffeine and alcohol can be dangerous. So that makes mixing Red Bull, which contains almost twice the caffeine as a large serving of Coke, and alcohol all that much more dangerous. Drinking Red Bull and vodka has been blamed for some deaths from dehydration, which has caused some governments to ban the product until more research can be done. In Canada, the sale of Red Bull is monitored by the health food division of Health Canada, and had to pass stringent tests in order to make it onto the shelves and into your belly.
Did You Know: in 2004, over 1.9 million cans of Red Bull were consumed!
So, as with anything else, it looks like moderation is the key here...and maybe if you plan your time a bit better you won't have to stay up all night in the first place.
Bichler A. et al. 2006. A combination of caffeine and taurine has no effect on short term memory but induces changes in heart rate and mean arterial blood pressure. Amino Acids [Epub ahead of print].
CBC Marketplace: Red Bull
Dolan. KA. 2005. The Soda With Buzz.
Red Bull website:
IAMS Pet food:
Allyson did her B.Sc. in Genetics at the University of Western Ontario (UWO), and is currently working on her Master's in Physiology, also at UWO. Her work focuses on spinal cord injury and scar formation, and how to make the cells that make up that scar (astrocytes) more hospitable to nerve regeneration. Allyson is also learning whitewater kayaking, although most of her time is currently spent underwater and inhaling a lot of water at the moment.