High blood pressure is often characterized as “the silent killer,” because it can cause permanent damage throughout the body without any obvious symptoms. And it is all too common. According to the CDC, nearly half of American adults have hypertension, and risk tends to go up as we get older.
But high blood pressure is probably not inevitable, even if it kind of seems that way. For instance, we know that people living in certain hunter-gatherer communities have low blood pressure, and it stays low even as they age. So it’s very likely that aspects of our lifestyle - in other words, things that we can control - play a role in circulatory function.
One factor that has attracted some hype is taurine. Taurine is an amino acid-like molecule that occurs naturally throughout the body, and most of us would recognize it as a prominent ingredient in energy drinks. Some preliminary research in rodents has shown that taurine might improve heart health by preventing hardening of the arteries, and generally keeping the blood vessels healthy.
Sounds promising. But does this translate to humans? And should we try to exploit this for ourselves?
Unveiling taurine’s impact on blood pressure
The relationship between taurine and blood pressure was noted back in the early 1980s. It started with a global observational study coordinated by the WHO, aptly dubbed the CARDIAC Study. Basically, researchers approached groups of people from 61 different populations distributed across 16 countries and invited them to participate in a health examination. During these exams, they looked at standard measurements like weight, blood pressure, and blood lipids, but they also looked at a bunch of biomarkers that corresponded to dietary factors, like urinary sodium and potassium. They followed the subjects for more than a decade, to see how differences in these measures ultimately related to long-term outcomes.
Now, most of the key findings from this study aren’t really anything new. For instance, higher urinary sodium was associated with higher blood pressure, and higher serum cholesterol was linked to greater risk of coronary heart disease. We kind of already knew all that, even back then.
But here’s where it gets really interesting: they noticed that higher levels of taurine in the urine (indicating higher intake in the diet) were strongly and consistently linked to lower risk of cardiovascular mortality, even after adjusting for other factors like age and BMI.
And it seemed to be making a big difference; statistical analysis showed that 42-55% of the variation in ischemic heart disease mortality could be explained by differences in taurine levels.
But of course, correlation does not equal causation.
Putting it to the test
Here’s the thing: Taurine is found abundantly in fish, and all of the populations with the highest taurine levels were also the most avid seafood consumers. So how can we be sure that it was actually the taurine, and not other benefits associated with fish? After all, fish is an all-around healthy food, full of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, zinc, magnesium, potassium, selenium, and other good stuff. Like, is taurine actually doing anything, or is it just a marker of a high fish diet?
The CARDIAC researchers apparently wondered the same thing, so they decided to do a clinical trial. The research team found a small group of Tibetans living at the foot of Mt Everest who had participated in the CARDIAC study. These folks had some of the lowest levels of taurine among the populations studied, and their blood pressure was also really high on average. The volunteers were administered 3 grams of supplemental taurine every day.
After two months, their blood pressure had dropped dramatically, from an average of 152.5/93.8 all the way down to 138.7/84.6. Wow!
More recent studies, using larger sample sizes and more rigorous designs, have mirrored these impressive results. In 2016, researchers in China recruited 120 men and women with prehypertension, meaning a systolic (top number) blood pressure of 120 to 139 mm Hg, and a diastolic blood pressure (bottom number) of 80 to 89 mm Hg. So, these people weren’t in quite as rough shape as those Tibetan subjects, from a vascular standpoint, but could still stand to benefit a ton from improving their numbers.
They randomly assigned the volunteers to either a placebo group or a taurine group, the latter of whom took 1.6 grams of taurine daily. After 12 weeks, the placebo group showed no meaningful changes, but the taurine group experienced, on average, a 7.2 point decrease in systolic blood pressure and a 4.7 point decrease in diastolic blood pressure.
That is a major, clinically relevant decrease in blood pressure. This level of reduction, in fact, is comparable to the blood-pressure lowering effect of anti-hypertensive medications.
So, taurine seems to independently decrease risk of heart disease - and it does so at least in part through lowering blood pressure.
How much taurine do I need?
While you should always talk to your primary care physician prior to taking any supplements, a typical American diet provides around 120-180 mg of taurine daily, and humans can synthesize small amounts of taurine so most of us don’t really need to worry about frank deficiency. However, improvements in blood pressure from taurine are usually seen with much higher doses than what you would find in a normal diet, which is why supplementation is likely needed to see a big payoff.
Clinical studies use 1500-3000 mg per day, and that amount is generally deemed to be a safe long-term dose. So that probably should be the target you shoot for, if you’re looking to replicate the results of the studies described above.
Is supplementing with taurine safe?
Taurine is generally very safe, even in fairly high amounts, but you may want to consult a physician before adding taurine to your regimen, especially if you are being treated for hypertension. That’s because if taurine works as well for you as it did in these studies, you might need to have your meds adjusted to avoid risky drops in blood pressure.
Where do I find taurine?
Well, a major source for a lot of Americans is Monster or Red Bull, which contain a decent amount of taurine. However, the downsides (excessive caffeine, high sugar) probably outweigh the benefits.
And, if you’re looking for an extra boost while you’re at Restore, it is also one of the featured nutrients in several of the infusions on Restore’s IV drip menu.