It’s the bottom of the 8th inning. There are one out and a man on third base. The score is a complete deadlock. The Washington Senators on September 30, 1927, were a force to be reckoned with. They were the biggest challenger to the infamous New York Yankees. The crowd was tense. They came to see who could answer the age-old question: “Who is faster, the pitch or the hit?” That hot, summer day, Babe Ruth reached in a pouch, packed a nug of chewing tobacco into his cheek, and came out with the confidence and swagger of a man looking to crush spirits and break records.
The dangerously accurate lefty Tom Zachary was at the plate, determined to strike out the living legend. He threw the fastest ball anyone could at the time. He wound up, cocked his knee, and launched. Not a 10th of a second after, the only thing you could hear was the sharp crack of Tennessee lumber on that poor lefty’s fastpitch. It was Babe Ruth’s 60th home run of the season. When asked how he did it, he credited the nug in his lip and nothing else.
Nicotine and Sports
Nicotine pouches have been a part of sports mythos since the beginning of the 20th century. Before that, the reputation of tobacco and its effects were well known among jousters, fencers, archers, and anything in between. It was not only fashionable, but it was also the X-factor of every toe-to-toe match of the century. But what exactly is the nicotine pouch? What is it about this smokeless form of tobacco that has people performing at the highest levels? Why are they important to athletes? Better yet, what’s the applicable knowledge about this that we can use today?
Athletes Prefer Snus
Athletes have been ahead of the curve when it comes to smokeless tobacco. Some forms may have been more dignified than the others, but smokeless tobacco has always been a part of their regimen. The classic examples have pushed modern research into the mix. The Journal of Sport and Health Science even published a paper in 2018 studying Snus for sports and an increase in endurance. The results came back shockingly positive in favor of snus. But before we get into that, let's lay the foreground in defining “snus” itself.
Snus Is Better Than Chewing Tobacco
Snus is a form of oral smokeless tobacco. It’s often purchased in little packs that you can tuck between your lip and your gum. Although there are a bunch of different kinds of snus products and flavors, the basic mechanism of use is the pouch between the top or bottom lip and the gum. This is seen across the globe as the cleaner, more dignified version of oral tobacco use. If you do it like Babe Ruth and pack a whole wad of sun-dried tobacco into your cheek, you would have to rely on the “burn” and the absorption of nicotine while constantly spitting. You see, in that “Great American Pastime” the field was riddled with brown pools of spit from all the athletes not being able to swallow the mixture of saliva and tobacco. In Snus, you can swallow your saliva. It is quite pleasant.
The reason behind this is that the process in which Snus is made involves pasteurization. The steady applied moist heat kills the bacteria that would otherwise render the tobacco plant bitter and acidic. The outcome is a smooth, mild, and wonderfully stimulating end product you can enjoy without having to bring around a spittoon.
Nicotine, The Classical Nootropic
Athletes use snus because of nicotine. The delivery mechanism of snus is, in itself, totally conducive for use in sports and physical activities. For one, it’s not inhaled. Everybody, especially health experts, gets up in arms about smoking, especially when athletes smoke. Despite some of the most insane hearty prizefighters from Thailand and The Philippines being pack-a-day smokers, they have a point. Smoking can have a detrimental effect on one’s oxygen intake over time.
The introduction of these combustible chemicals to the thin lining of the alveoli in the lungs is a recipe for conditions like metaplasia and hyperplasia—a thickening and changing of the cells. Because of that, getting the nicotine directly to the bloodstream via the oral/buccal route is a much safer alternative.
Central Nervous System Effects
Nicotine is a stimulant. It acts on the central nervous system like no other chemical. We even have receptors that activate, reacting to noradrenaline, called “nicotinic receptors”. They fire our synapses by binding to our signal modulators. Because of this, it can act as either a stimulant or a sedative, depending on the dose and the activity of the brain. So when an athlete competes, they get that “nicotine kick”—the rush of our brain recognizing and stepping up activity through CNS stimulation.
Paradoxically, it allows the athlete to focus and hone in on the activity. This is due to the increase of acetylcholine activity in the brain. You see, adrenaline and acetylcholine are the drivers and sustainers of one’s goals and activities. They’re the primary players in “mental toughness”. It’s the ability of your brain to stay at a certain level of performance in accordance, or even beyond, the rest of the body’s level of fatigue.
This amazing ability to “hone in” lends itself to the world of endurance, precision, and power sports. Muay Thai fighters are infamous for using nicotine to play “3D chess” with their opponents, setting traps five moves ahead to bring about a knockout. Cyclists have been known to use patches and snus to take advantage of the bronchodilation effect of the sympathetic uptick, as caused by nicotine. Famously, pool halls are filled with snus vendors and Scottish snuff cans. These are the sports that recognized and actively utilized nicotine, especially nicotine pouches, to their advantage.
In high level and professional sports, athletes need all the help they can get. Many of them turned to banned or illegal substances to get that job done, blood doping and using cycles of EPO to increase their red blood cell count. Others use snus, a compound with a quarter of the side effects and maximal effect, to elicit physiological vasoconstriction and bronchodilation. Whatever the reasons athletes have for using smokeless tobacco, the verdict remains: it works.