Stress and mental health are highly connected. Chronic stress increases the risk of developing mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, potentially due to changes to neurotransmitters, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis dysfunction, and inflammation. Dietary and lifestyle factors may counter some of these effects to support neurotransmitter balance and promote a healthy stress response.* One amino acid that may have a positive impact on stress and mental health is taurine.
Taurine is an amino acid synthesized from cysteine and methionine. Although it is not an essential amino acid, it is important to consume dietary sources of it because the regulator of its biosynthesis (the enzyme cysteine sulfinic acid decarboxylase) has a relatively low activity. Taurine is synthesized in the liver and found throughout the body and in the brain.
Taurine has many proposed roles in brain function, including support of the regulation of neuronal excitability, learning and memory formation, neuroprotection, and enhancing central nervous system development. It may also support cell membrane structure and depolarization-associated calcium channel activity.
Taurine may also act on glycine receptors as an endogenous neurotransmitter and activate the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)ergic network. GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter, slowing down nerve cell activity and preventing overfiring. GABA levels may decrease during stressful situations, leading to an imbalance in the excitatory/inhibitory system and a higher risk of mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety.
Researchers have evaluated whether taurine may support the stress response and mental health. One animal model of anxiety found that an intranasal administration of taurine led to a reduction in anxiety, as demonstrated by fewer horizontal and vertical activities and more time spent in the open area. Another study on an animal model of depression induced by chronic unpredictable mild stress found that pretreatment with taurine reduced the effects of stress, including preventing memory defects and anxiety. Taurine also prevented imbalances in neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline, glutamate, and corticosterone that are associated with depression and promote normal HPA axis function.
In a phase 2, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial, 4 grams of taurine supplementation as an adjunct therapy to low-dose antipsychotic medication significantly improved the psychopathology in patients with first-episode psychosis. Those in the taurine group experienced improved symptomatology, as measured by the Brief Psychiatric Rating Scale (BPRS).
Consuming a healthy diet ensures sufficient nutrients to support cognitive function and mental health. Many different dietary components play a role in HPA axis function and neurotransmitter balance. The amino acid taurine may support brain function and promote a normal stress response.* It is possible to consume sufficient quantities in the diet, but some individuals may find that they have an increased need requiring supplementation.
By Kendra Whitmire, MS, CNS