March 2, 2012 -- Taurine, an amino acid found in dark meat poultry and other foods, may be good for some people's hearts, according to a new study.
"People with high cholesterol may have a reduced risk of coronary heart disease if they have a high level of taurine in their diet," says researcher Yu Chen, PhD, MPH, associate professor of epidemiology at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York.
Her research looked only at women. However, she suspects the same benefit may be found for men.
The study was small. Much more research is needed, Chen tells WebMD. Her study is published online in the European Journal of Nutrition.
The American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health funded the study.
Taurine and Heart Disease Risk: Study Details
There hasn’t been a lot of research on taurine, Chen tells WebMD. The nutrient is found in dark meat turkey and chicken. It is also in some seafood, including white fish, mussels, and clams, she says.
It's also found in energy drinks. Some think it can improve athletic performance, although in a release Chen says the taurine in drinks is man-made and is in unstudied amounts. The taurine in her study is from natural sources.
Animal studies of taurine have found it is involved in many body processes such as blood pressure regulation. It has been found to have antioxidant properties.
Chen looked at data and blood samples collected from the NYU Women's Health Study. This study enrolled more than 14,000 women ages 34 to 65 between 1985 and 1991.
For this study, Chen compared blood samples and diet information from 223 women who developed heart disease or died from it during the study follow-up from 1986 to 2006.
The researchers compared these blood samples to those of 223 others who didn't get heart disease.
They divided the women into three groups, from lowest to highest taurine in their blood.
Overall, the reduction in heart disease risk was not substantial for those in the highest group compared to the lowest.
However, Chen did find a benefit when she looked only at those women who had high total cholesterol, over 250 mg/dL. (Under 200 is considered normal.)
Among those with high cholesterol, those with the highest blood levels of taurine had a lower risk of heart disease.
"Among women with high cholesterol, those with high taurine experienced a 60% reduction in coronary heart disease," she says.
Chen can't say how much or which foods to eat to get those blood levels.
Exactly why the taurine is linked with lower heart disease is not known. She says it could be due to taurine's anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Eventually, those at risk of heart disease due to high cholesterol may be given a diet prescription in addition to medicine, Chen says.
However, she found an association, not cause and effect.
Taurine and Heart Disease Risk: Perspective
Taurine is gathering research interest, says Paramjit Tappia, PhD, a clinical research scientist at St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre at the University of Manitoba.
He reviewed the findings for WebMD. He has researched the health benefits of taurine.
He says he would be cautious, however, about speculating that taurine's benefits extend to men until the study is done. "There is a lot of debate going on right now about gender differences in the ability to control lipids [cholesterol] with medicine or lifestyle changes," Tappia tells WebMD.
More research is needed, he says.