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What Really Gives You Wings? Taking a Closer Look at Energy Drinks

NAVAL AIR STATION, PENSAOCLA, Fla. -- What truly is giving us energy when we consume energy drinks? Is it the caffeine, excess sugar, B12, the proprietary blend mix or taurine?

The Food and Drug Administration reports that more than 80 percent of Americans consume caffeine daily with the average being three cups of coffee a day per person. Caffeinated beverages come in all varieties and flavors from your standard cup of coffee to the countless options of energy drinks that promise to give you long lasting energy or even “wings.”

Caffeine has become so popular and overused that caffeine withdrawal has actually been included as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Because of the solubility of caffeine, it is able to effortlessly cross the blood barrier into the brain. When discussing the structure of molecules, caffeine is structurally similar to that of adenosine. In the brain, when adenosine is “locked” into its respective receptor site, a feeling of sleepiness or drowsiness ensues. However, when caffeine is present, caffeine kicks adenosine out of the way and occupies the receptor sites. When this happens, we have a feeling of alertness. Additionally, the excess adenosine molecules that are now free floating in the brain stimulate the release of adrenaline which is another stimulant, in turn increasing our alertness. Caffeine also causes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, dilation of pupils, and release of sugar from the liver to the blood stream for extra energy.

Our brains are remarkably elastic and adapt over time to the constant onslaught of caffeine. The brain actually builds more adenosine receptor sites to compensate for the constant stream of caffeine molecules. This means there are now more receptor sites than caffeine molecules available to “lock in” so we need to consume more caffeine to get the same effect.

Lately, taurine seems to be stealing the spotlight and more and more energy drinks are infused with the ingredient. Researchers are studying the effects taurine has on the body to understand whether or not it plays a role in increased mental performance as well as the long-term side effects it may have on the body

Taurine is a “conditional amino acid,” meaning it’s produced by the body. It’s found in abundance in the brain, retina, heart and platelets and also can be consumed by eating meat and fish. Taurine has been found to help treat high blood pressure, congestive heart failure and cystic fibrosis. What is up for debate, however, is whether or not it helps with enhancing mental performance. There have been clinical research tests showing that taurine, in combination with caffeine and B vitamins can help improve attention and reasoning, but more evidence is needed to definitively state that taurine enhances mental performance.

Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College have found taurine is a very strong activator of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA. GABA receptors are found in a very specific region of the brain, the thalamus. The thalamus plays a critical role as the regulatory center of the brain, regulating consciousness, sleep and alertness. GABA is an inhibitory transmitter and researchers believe taurine shares these receptor sites.

Based on their research, Neil Harrison, professor of pharmacology and pharmacology in anesthesiology at Weill Cornell, believes taurine should actually have a sedative effect on the brain. Here lies the conundrum of whether or not taurine actually gives us energy, even though it is heavily concentrated in energy drinks sold today. In reference to energy drinks, Harrison notes, “Remarkably little is known about the effects of energy drinks on the brain. … Assuming that some of [taurine] does get absorbed, the taurine … may actually play a role in the crash people often report after drinking these highly caffeinated beverages.”

In comparison, a 2010 study in the “Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research” came to a different conclusion. They concluded that in comparison to consuming carbohydrates alone, consumption of protein, in this case taurine, along with a carbohydrate during exercise showed a physiological benefit on athletes’ endurance performance when measuring time to exhaustion. Of note, though, is whether or not the increase in energy was because of the protein element or due to the ingestion of more calories overall.

Taurine is thought to be safe in moderation; however, there is very little known about the long-term effects taurine has on the body. This is concerning because taurine is found in nearly every energy drink, and energy drinks are growing ever more popular in today’s fast-paced society.

What is the bottom line?

Use coffee/energy drinks in moderation to avoid developing a tolerance over time. Furthermore, there needs to be more research done to see if there are unknown synergistic effects between stimulants such as B12, caffeine, taurine and niacin. All energy drinks are not created equal, and depending upon the ingredients, can interact with our bodies in different ways. Additionally, there is no definitive answer/research that shows taurine improves mental alertness nor whether the consumption of taurine over the long term is safe. What we do know is that taurine, in moderation appears to be safe, but more testing needs to be done to nail down a solid answer.


 (NOTE: Sources for this article include, “This Is How Your Brain Becomes Addicted to Caffeine,” Joseph Stromberg, Aug. 9, 2013, Smithsonian.com. … “Why Does Caffeine Keep You Awake?” Jan. 21, 2009, HowStuffWorks.com. … “Taurine,” WebMD. … “Scientists Close in on Taurine’s Activity in the Brain,” Feb. 12, 2008, Cornell Chronicle. … “Is Taurine Safe?” Staci Gulbin, Aug. 16, 2013, Livestrong.com.)