01 fish oil FILE
How safe are supplements?
02:58 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Taurine, an amino acid often used by body builders and added to energy or sports drinks, may be an “elixir of life,” according to the author of a new study — at least when it comes to extending the health and lifespan of worms, mice and monkeys.

Will it be helpful — or potentially harmful —in people? No one knows, so save your money, experts say.

Middle-aged female mice fed high levels of taurine lived 12% longer on average than mice who did not receive taurine, while male mice lived about 10% longer, said lead study author Vijay Yadav, assistant professor of genetics and development at Columbia University in New York City, in a news briefing.

“This study suggests that taurine could be an elixir of life within us,” Yadav said in an earlier news release on the study, which published Thursday in the journal Science.

Ready for ‘prime time’?

Considered a non-essential amino acid, taurine exists in the brain, retina and nearly every muscle and organ tissue in the body. Studies have found it may be anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective in older brains but potentially harmful to the developing brains of adolescents. Taurine deficiencies are linked to heart, kidney and retinal damage.

Absorbed from foods such as shellfish and meat and distributed by the liver, taurine levels decline with age, “but if you top it up back to youthful levels, then you have this effect that the mice live healthier for longer,” coauthor Henning Wackerhage, a professor of exercise biology at the Technical University of Munich in Germany, said in the briefing.

Tests in monkeys found those who took taurine supplements were leaner, had better blood sugar levels and less liver damage, had increased bone density, a younger-looking immune system and gained less weight, according to the study.

“These studies in several species show that taurine abundance declines with age and the reversal of this decline makes the animals live longer and healthier lives,” Yadav said. “At the end of the day, the findings should be relevant to humans.”

But worms, mice and monkeys are not people, and science is years away from proving taurine’s anti-aging value in humans — if it even exists, experts warn.

“This doesn’t seem like a story ready for prime time, and it could be harmful if people started consuming more animal-sourced foods to increase taurine intake,” said leading nutrition researcher Dr. Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. He was not involved in the study.

“In our cohorts with over 130,000 men and women followed for up to 30 years (with more than 30,000 deaths), greater intake of animal protein was related to higher overall mortality and mortality from most major diseases,” Willett said in an email. “Some additional studies in humans using taurine supplements would be interesting, but we are long way from suggesting their use.”

The only experiment on humans in the study found exercise — often called the key to longevity — improved taurine levels in people. However, exercise also reduces cholesterol; improves blood flow; lowers blood pressure; strengthens muscles, including the heart, boosts energy; improves sleep; and fights chronic disease.

“I really dislike claims of extreme longevity extension in humans because we simply just don’t know,” said Gordon Lithgow, professor and vice president of academic affairs at the Buck Institute in Novato, California, an independent biomedical research institute focused solely on aging.

“I’m not saying it’s not possible, but we need to have proper double-blinded clinical trials in people to see what happens,” said Lithgow, whose lab conducted the research on worms included in the new study.

Unfortunately, many drugs, supplements, herbs and vitamins which appear to be beneficial may fail spectacularly once science has finished its examination, he said.

“Take vitamin E for example. People have been taking vitamin E for decades, and then we find out it certainly doesn’t do any good and may actually be harmful,” Lithgow said. “You have to wait for the clinical trial data — that’s the only real measure in biomedicine.”

Despite these caveats, “it’s hard not to get excited ab