I’m currently at a conference where I’m spending the majority of the day in what they call “Genomic Medicine Boot Camp” (aka biochemistry through a firehose. It’s fun, trust me). Most of it wouldn’t translate to a blog very well, but here’s one clinical pearl that might. I’m gonna do my best, anyway.
Amino Acids vs Proteins
First, let’s define our terms. Proteins are one of the three big macronutrients you need to consume in your diet to survive (the other two being carbohydrates and fats). The building blocks for proteins are called amino acids There are twenty amino acids, and different combinations of those twenty make up every protein in your body. Taurine is one of them.
When given at concentrated doses, individual amino acids sometimes serve other purposes, such as cell signaling. Lots of amino acids either are neurotransmitters themselves, for instance (i.e. a method of communication between nerve cells), or they turn into neurotransmitters with a little help. Taurine isn’t a neurotransmitter, but it works in conjunction with a few of them. It also has a calming effect on your nerve conduction.
Why Taurine Calms You Down
There are two main reasons why taurine has a calming effect (that I know of). The first is that taurine binds to and stimulates the receptors for the calming neurotransmitters glycine (an amino acid itself) and GABA (the neurotransmitter responsible for the effects of drugs like Xanax). Glycine and GABA are both also available over the counter, but neurotransmitter balancing sometimes requires more than one approach. Or, in some patients, one approach may not work at all while another works beautifully.
The second reason has to do with the physiology of muscle and nerve conduction. Muscle contraction starts with an electrical signal called an action potential, involving charged particles called electrolytes sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Healthy cells will be able to maintain electrolytes on the correct sides of their cell membranes. Unhealthy cells will not be able to do this, leaving them in a state of perpetual irritability. This can lead to thinks like agitation, overstimulation, hypersensitivity, or arrhythmias (heart palpitations).
Taurine apparently acts like a traffic cop, directing electrolytes back to the appropriate sides of the cell membranes, helping the cells calm back down to its baseline electrical potential. So for overexcitable, too-sensitive patients, it helps to calm things down.
Sources of Taurine
Food sources for taurine include meat (of course), as well as dairy, and oddly enough, oatmeal (even though primarily that’s in the carbohydrate family). It’s also available over the counter as a supplement.
(The rest of today’s lectures, I think, will require me to go out and buy some big white poster boards like I did in med school, so I can draw out all the interconnected pathways and see the big picture. Good times!)