Nicotine is a stimulant, and a psychoactive substance, that has garnered attention in sports due to its impact on athletic performance. Following caffeine, nicotine is the second most popular psychoactive substance.
Nicotine, Smoking, Vaping in Endurance Sports
Nicotine is a stimulant, and a psychoactive substance, that has garnered attention in sports due to its impact on athletic performance. Following caffeine, nicotine is the second most popular psychoactive substance. (Boutrel & Koob, 2004) It is consumed by over 20% of the world’s population, demonstrating its widespread prevalence. (Reitsma et al., 2021)
The use of nicotine can have both positive and negative effects on athletic performance. As a stimulant, it can increase heart rate, alertness, and concentration for a short duration (min), potentially providing athletes with a competitive edge. However, it is also addictive, and tobacco use, specifically cigarette smoking, is associated with several health risks, including carbon monoxide exposure, increased blood pressure, and damage to the arteries, which can be detrimental to overall performance.
This article explores the prevalence of nicotine use among athletes, its effects on performance, and the complex relationship between nicotine and various factors such as smoking, addiction, and individual differences.
Nicotine and Sports
In the past, some cyclists in the 1900s smoked cigarettes believing it could improve their performance, particularly before steep climbs, as they thought it would open up their lungs. Others used nicotine for its psychological effects. For instance, Eddy Merckx, a famous cyclist who won several Tour De France’s in the 70s, used to smoke during the Tour de France, claiming that it helped calm his nerves. However, it is important to note that the practice was based on a misconception, as smoking has been proven detrimental to athletic performance.
Nicotine (NIC) use is prevalent in various sports, particularly in team sports. The sports with the highest reported NIC use among athletes include baseball, ice hockey, and wrestling. Approximately 45% of major league baseball players have been reported to use smokeless tobacco. In ice hockey, reports have emerged that 30 to 50 percent of players actively use NIC products. A majority of the athletes said that use NIC stated that they do so because it prevents dry mouth, controls weight, improves reaction time, improves focus, and helps with relaxation.(Reitsma et al., 2021)
Athletes may consume NIC through various methods, such as cigarette smoking, tobacco smoke, smokeless tobacco use (e.g., snus, snuff), vaping, or replacement therapies (NRTs) like gum or lozenges. While some methods, like vaping and NRTs, may reduce exposure to harmful carcinogens compared to traditional cigarettes, they still present addiction risks. They can have negative effects on lung function and cardiovascular health.
It is essential to consider individual differences and other factors, such as metabolism and caffeine intake, when evaluating the effects of NIC on athletic performance. Factors such as genetic predisposition, baseline cognitive and physical abilities, and the presence of other substances can modulate the relationship between NIC and performance.
How Nicotine Works in the Body
When nicotine is consumed through smoking, chewing, or vaping, it quickly enters the bloodstream and reaches the brain. Within the body are specific proteins known as receptors that receive certain neurotransmitters or chemicals. It binds to a particular type of receptor called the nicotinic-cholinergic receptor, which, when activated, triggers a biological response. This binding results in the release of various neurotransmitters, including dopamine, GABA, serotonin, and glutamate, which sustain addiction. (Fang et al., 2022)
As an agonist, NIC stimulates the adrenal glands to produce epinephrine, also known as adrenaline. This hormone and neurotransmitter increase heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate, preparing the body for a “fight or flight” response. Additionally, its interaction with the brain leads to the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward, contributing to its addictive nature. NIC also decreases food intake and increases metabolism, leading to reduced body weight gain. (Audrain-McGovern & Benowitz, 2011)
Effects of Nicotine on the Body
NIC impacts various body parts, leading to short-term and long-term consequences. It can alter the chemistry in the brain, increasing the risk of psychiatric disorders such as major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder. (Yuan et al., 2020) Its vasoconstrictive properties cause blood vessels to constrict, reducing the flow of nutrients to the skin and potentially resulting in skin-related issues.
Does Nicotine Affect Sports Performance
Some studies have found that NIC supplementation can have positive effects on cognitive abilities and sports performance of professional archers and baseball players. (Fang et al., 2022; Hung et al., 2021) Its analgesic impact might decrease pain intensity during exercise, potentially affecting performance.(Bartík et al., 2023)
Numerous studies have examined the effects of NIC on athletic performance, with varying results. Most of these studies have assessed muscular strength and power, sub- or maximal endurance, and high-intensity exercise using NIC or smokeless tobacco as an intervention. From the ten published studies, 16 distinct performance metrics/tests have been documented. 12 of the performance metrics have indicated that NIC has no influence, while two have revealed a performance-enhancing (ergogenic) effect, and two have a performance-hindering (ergolytic) effect. (Johnston et al., 2018)
Regarding muscular strength and power, one study showed an ergogenic effect with NIC, one with an ergolytic impact, and another with no change. Of the five studies assessing sub- or maximal endurance, only one demonstrated an ergogenic effect with NIC. In contrast, the other four demonstrated no change or did not explicitly report time or work completed. In the four studies assessing high-intensity and intermittent sprint exercise, only one showed an ergogenic effect with NIC, while the other three demonstrated no change. (Mündel, 2017)
Overall, the evidence base suggests that, descriptively, nicotine is unlikely to affect performance. Still, if it does, the effect could be ergogenic or ergolytic, depending on the individual and the specific context. More research is needed to determine the factors that influence the effects of nicotine on athletic performance and better understand the potential consequences of its use in sports.
Power Athletes Use Nicotine More than Aerobic Athletes
A recent study analyzed the prevalence of NIC use among professional athletes, particularly in sports where endurance, muscular strength, reaction time, and muscular performance are crucial. The analysis of 60,802 doping control tests conducted in Italy reveals a concerning prevalence of NIC use among athletes, with urine samples indicating its presence. The results were:
- One in 5 samples from 90 sports contained NIC in the samples.
- 22.7% of the samples taken from athletes tested positive for NIC.
- Samples from team sports displayed approximately twice the positivity of those from individual sports.
- One in four male and one in five female samples showed NIC positivity.
The prevalence of nicotine use varies among different sports, with higher rates observed in athletes dependent on strength and power, such as American football, Ice-hockey, baseball, and weightlifting. Football (soccer) with 20,454 tests, with overall nicotine positivity at 29% (range from 18 to 40% depending on the year). Nicotine use was much lower for aerobic-based sports such as cycling, triathlons, rowing, and swimming.(Zandonai et al., 2023)
Is Nicotine Banned in Sports?
Nicotine is not universally banned in sports, but its status varies depending on the sport and governing body. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which sets global anti-doping standards, does not include nicotine on its Prohibited List. However, WADA monitors nicotine use to detect patterns of misuse in sports.WADA currently has nicotine on its Monitoring Program due to its high use in winter sports, although current research evidence does not support a clear ergogenic effect.
Some sports organizations or national anti-doping agencies have chosen to implement their own restrictions or bans on nicotine use. For example, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has not banned nicotine outright, but they do discourage its use due to potential health risks and performance-enhancing effects.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has not banned nicotine outright, but they do discourage its use due to potential health risks and performance-enhancing effects.
In conclusion, the relationship between nicotine and athletic performance is complex and influenced by various factors, including individual differences, addiction, withdrawal, and the method of nicotine administration. The inception of nicotine use can lead to serious health risks. Further research and careful monitoring of nicotine use in sports are crucial to maintaining the integrity of competitions and protecting the health of athletes, particularly in the United States and other countries where its use is widespread.
Tobacco Companies and Youth
Tobacco companies have targeted young athletes through marketing and endorsement deals, further increasing the visibility of nicotine use in sports. Non-smokers are also affected by cigarette smoke and tobacco smoke in their environment. The CDC and other health organizations have emphasized the importance of protecting non-smokers from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, especially in sports settings.
As the sports community continues to grapple with the issue of nicotine use, several steps can be taken to address its impact on athletic performance and athletes’ health:
Education and awareness:
Sports organizations, coaches, trainers, and medical professionals should collaborate to provide comprehensive educational programs on the risks associated with nicotine use, its potential effects on performance, and the dangers of addiction. This can be done through workshops, seminars, and the development of informative materials easily accessible to all athletes.
Support for quitting or reducing nicotine use:
Athletes who want to quit or reduce their nicotine use should be provided with the necessary resources and support, such as access to counseling services, nicotine replacement therapies, and other evidence-based cessation methods. This support can help them overcome withdrawal symptoms and cravings, improving their performance and overall well-being.
Strict anti-doping and anti-tobacco policies:
Sports organizations should develop and enforce stringent policies prohibiting nicotine-containing substances during competitions and promoting tobacco-free environments within sports facilities. These policies can help maintain a level playing field and protect the health of both athletes and non-athletes alike.
By taking a proactive and collaborative approach to address the issue of nicotine use in sports, the sports community can help protect the health of athletes, maintain the integrity of competitions, and promote a culture of fair play and healthy living for all those involved. It is crucial to prioritize the well-being of athletes and foster a sports environment that values fair competition and a healthy lifestyle for all participants.
What is the effect of nicotine on sports performance?
Nicotine can lead to decreased athletic performance, decreased lung function, increased heart rate, and reduced endurance capacity. Athletes who use nicotine may also experience decreased reaction times, impaired hand-eye coordination, and decreased cognitive function, all of which can negatively impact their performance.
How does nicotine affect physical fitness?
Nicotine can have a significant impact on athletic performance. It has been shown to decrease lung function, which can result in reduced endurance and athletic performance. Longer-term effects of nicotine use may include respiratory problems and increased risk of chronic diseases such as lung cancer.
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