Nicotine is commonly associated with smoking cigarettes – something routinely shunned by people in pursuit of greater physical performance. However, is nicotine itself the venom? Moreover, could it provide an ergogenic affect for athletes?
Nicotine was first identified in the early 19th century. It’s an addictive alkaloid that has long been obtained from the dried leaves of the tobacco plant, Nicotiana tabacum. Nicotine is its main active ingredient. It is well understood that smoking tobacco is toxic to the human body; causing irritation of lung tissues, constriction of blood vessels, increased blood pressure and heart rate, as well as central nervous system stimulation. The bad is well known, but the potential for good is often less understood; as well as how the two relate.
Research demonstrates long-term use of smokeless tobacco does not negatively influence exercise capacity in healthy, physically well-trained subjects. A study by the Department of Physiology, Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, examined effects of oral smokeless tobacco use on oxygen uptake, cardiac output, stroke volume, heart rate and plasma lactate concentration during rest and exercise. Researchers reported that oral smokeless tobacco increases anaerobic energy production and produces an increase in exercising heart rates during a submaximal training workload. Research routinely suggests that a person’s heart rate will increase when administering nicotine during rest and submaximal intensities. Conversely, heart rates remain unchallenged during periods of maximal performance. Strength training programs are frequently composed of submaximal events, in which increased stimulation is often sought out using caffeine-packed supplements.
Nicotine is a stimulant in reasonable doses. People generally feel calm yet alert – generally euphoric. Short quick puffs of a cigarette are commonly known to be invigorating. When consumed, nicotine triggers a release of chemical messengers; such as norepinephrine, epinephrine, acetylecholine, dopamine and beta-endorphin. The release of norepinephrine and acetylecholine can enhance concentration, arousal and alertness. Pain is reduced by increases in acetylecholine and beta-endorphin. These effects can last from minutes to hours, depending on individual sensitivities to nicotine’s psychotropic effects. Nicotine also stimulates the liver to release glucose into the blood as an immediate source of energy.
Nicotine’s primary therapeutic use is to its dependencies; however, benefits have been found while treating seizures associated with epilepsy, hallucinations in schizophrenia, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Parkinson’s Disease.
Plenty of anecdotal evidence – from heavily-trained bodybuilders to sedentary individuals – suggests a roll in fat loss. Some accredited clinical studies support nicotine for weight loss and preventing weight gain.
In large amounts, nicotine depresses the nervous system. Heavy intake is easily attained over time, due to its addictive nature. Nicotine gums frequently contain 2 to 4 milligrams each. An average person takes in about one to two milligrams per cigarette. The calming affect can be attributed to a decline in withdrawal symptoms; including irritability, cravings, attention deficits, sleep disturbances and increased appetite. Long and deep inhalations – versus short and quick – depress nerve impulses and subsequently produce a mild sedative effect due to a greater raise in blood nicotine levels. Smoking cigarettes can also increase nicotine’s sedative potential by restricting the quality of oxygen absorbed from a smoke-laced breath of air. It can also suppress insulin output from the pancreas, which leads many heavy smokers to become chronically hyperglycemic, high levels of sugar in the blood.
Large amounts of nicotine can be highly toxic, causing vomiting, tremors, convulsions and death. In fact, one drop of pure nicotine could kill a person. Accidental poisoning has been reported in adults who consumed insecticides, as well as children or pets exposed to toxic levels of tobacco products. Death from respiratory failure by paralysis can occur in minutes.
Nicotine activates the brain’s reward pathways which regulate feelings of pleasure. It is the primary reason smoking is addictive and causes psychotropic affects – it’s why people continue to smoke after health erodes, or being brushed off by a potentially beneficial workout partner due to a strong smell associated with using it. Perhaps the perceived unpleasant smell of cigarette smoke is a subconscious warning of the 60 carcinogenic chemicals; including tar, carbon monoxide, acetaldehyde, nitrosamines and more.
Smoking cigarettes is bad for your health and is the cause of most lung cancer deaths. It is also responsible for many other cancers and health problems; such as lung disease, heart and blood vessel disease, stroke and cataracts. Women who smoke during pregnancy have a greater chance of pregnancy problems or losing a baby to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Nicotine readily crosses the placenta and enters the fetus. Smoking does not only affect the smoker – it affects everyone around them.
Cancer is much more than a zodiacal sign between Leo and Gemini. It is a life-threatening a class of diseases or disorders characterized by an uncontrollable and aggressive division of cells. Affected tissue has the ability to invade and destroy adjacent tissues. Sometimes malignant activity casually spreads to other locations within the body. Early detection is vital for a person’s chance of survival.
Carcinogens are substances that, when exposed to living tissue, may cause the production of cancer. The substances can be found in nature or created by man. Separate from smoking tobacco, the carcinogenic properties of nicotine itself have not been properly evaluated or assigned to an official carcinogen group. Currently available literature indicates that nicotine – on its own – does not promote the development of cancer in healthy tissue. However, nicotine’s actions within the body could cause a more favorable environment for cancer to thrive by hindering the body’s early efforts to remove mutated or damaged cells from the system. Recent research has identified how metabolized nicotine can produce products that the lungs could convert into a potent carcinogen. Switching to reduced-exposure tobacco products can decrease levels of tobacco-associated carcinogens. Nonetheless, medical research frowns on the use of smokeless tobacco as a safe substitute for smoking.
Unlike caffeine, nicotine is addictive and progressively greater amounts can nullify any benefits. Nicotine follows the general more-is-not-better rule of use; which can be a difficult line to walk when using a substance with addictive actions in the brain. If an athlete were to experiment with nicotine as a possible ergogenic aid, smokeless products used in modest amounts could push the risk-to-benefit barrier in their favor. Gums or sprays may be the safest and simplest methods for delivery but continuous use should be avoided.
Nora D.Volkow, M.D., National Institute on Drug Abuse Research Report – Tobacco Addiction: NIH Publication No. 06-4342, Printed 1998, Reprinted 2001, Revised 2006.
Tabitha M Powledge, Nicotine as Therapy, PLoS Biol. 2004 November; 2(11): e404.
Van Duser BL, Raven PB, The effects of oral smokeless tobacco on the cardiorespiratory response to exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1992 Mar;24(3):389-95.
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