Is nicotine the physique athlete's best friend? Or just a bad habit waiting to happen?
The 2:00 PM Resurrection
At 2:00 PM my brain felt like a puddle of goo. I couldn't concentrate. I had a serious case of afternoon slump. Physically, I was tired. I wanted a nap but had work to do. My mood? That of a rabid Pomeranian.
At 2:10 PM my brain was firing on all cylinders. Ideas flowed. I felt energized, positive, and happy.
What had happened between 2:00 and 2:10?
Answer: I'd taken a hit of nicotine.
Good Drug, Bad Delivery System
Yes, nicotine, the addictive substance found in cigarettes.
Listen, I would never smoke, and I do my best to avoid cancer-causing substances. I certainly hadn't smoked a cigarette to get my afternoon dose of nicotine. That particular delivery system is dirty and dumb. Instead, I'd simply chewed a piece of nicotine gum.
Think I'm crazy? Well, maybe. But here are the facts:
- Nicotine does not cause cancer. The other stuff in tobacco does.
- Nicotine has been used in energy drinks in Japan for years. Arnold used to do commercials for them.
- Nicotine has cognitive-enhancing effects, much like caffeine. It achieves these effects by heightening the activity in the brain's cholinergic pathways. This leads to an improved ability to concentrate, among other benefits.
- Nicotine has been part of the competitive bodybuilder's arsenal for years. It's used there for its appetite-suppressing effects during strict pre-contest diets. Contest-prep guru Shelby Starnes calls nicotine an "awesome appetite suppressant."
- Nicotine may help with fat loss. "Systemically administered nicotine induces lipolysis," one study says. (1) In laymen's terms, nicotine is a mild metabolism booster, which may partially explain why people who quit smoking often gain weight.
- Nicotine noticeably enhances mood. It raises dopamine levels in the brain and causes it to produce more endorphins. Nicotine also stimulates the release of acetylcholine, providing a sense of increased energy.
- Nicotine can improve reaction time.
- Nicotine can be addictive, much like caffeine. But addiction to nicotine gum, lozenges, or patches is rare, if not unheard of.
Now, nicotine does have its drawbacks, but so does caffeine. If nicotine came in the form of an icy-cold beverage or a rich frappachino, it would be as widely accepted – and as wildly popular – as caffeine. Since it usually comes in the form of a cigarette or chewing tobacco, it's feared, maligned, and misunderstood.
After Shelby Starnes planted the idea of "clean" nicotine usage in my head, I asked Christian Thibaudeau his thoughts.
Thibaudeau Weighs In
Christian said, "I first tried nicotine as a pre-workout stimulant in 1999, prior to the Eastern Canadian Olympic lifting championships. Since ECA wasn't allowed in tested events, I looked for a legal stimulant. I stumbled upon an article about nicotine (I think it was by Dan Duchaine.) It really helped give me an extra boost in my training.
I used it again in 2004 when I prepared for a bodybuilding contest. I dieted 24 weeks for that contest and after week 16 I wanted to eat the drywall! A combo of nicotine and Power Drive® helped me get through it."
The 50 Hit Experiment
Both Starnes and Thibaudeau recommend chewing 1 mg pieces of nicotine gum to avoid addiction. These products are typically sold in 1 mg, 2 mg, and 4 mg varieties, the latter being for very heavy smokers. I couldn't find any 1 mg gum so I settled for 2 mg – a generic form of Nicorette I picked up at CVS.
I bought the smallest box I could find: 50 pieces for about twelve bucks. My plan was to go through all 50 pieces over a few weeks, trying different protocols, dosages, and stacks.
My First Hit
I waited until the dreaded afternoon slump. Although I get plenty of sleep and avoid heavy, carby lunches, I still get mentally and physically sucker-punched around 2 PM.
The directions say to chew the gum for a moment or two, then park it between the cheek and gums until the "tingle" subsides. Chewing rapidly releases the nicotine too quickly, which could cause stomach irritation. Chew it for a while, park it, then chew it some more. The gum will be "empty" of nicotine in about 30 minutes.
I popped the first piece. The store-brand "original" flavor was mildly minty, not bad, but not exactly Stride sweet peppermint either. I felt the tingle in my mouth immediately and a slight burn in my throat. I parked the gum and waited it out. After a few minutes I was able to chew it normally.
Because the nicotine is absorbed into the bloodstream through the lining of the mouth, the effects come quickly. There was a definite physical boost, but the mood and cognitive affects were really noticeable. My brain felt re-energized, my mood improved, and I found I was able to progress quickly through my writing project. (I'd been feeling mentally stalled-out just minutes before.)
I concluded immediately that cigarettes may be for idiots, but nicotine was my new favorite smart drug.
The Purposeful OD
After two weeks of continued use, I decided to purposefully overdose.
It's like with overtraining: you don't know what your capacity for training is until you've gone too far. You don't want to always under-train just because you don't know where that line is, so you test your limit by purposefully overtraining, then backing it down a notch. Same with some types of supplements and drugs.
On the afternoon of a video shoot at the Biotest Training Lab, I popped two pieces of gum – 4 mg total, the dosage designed only for heavy smokers who are accustomed to smoking 20 cigarettes a day minimum.
Ten minutes later I learned the lesson of the "sweet spot."
The Stimulant Sweet Spot
Tim Patterson, head honcho of Biotest and formulator of Spike® and Brain Candy®, calls it the "sweet spot." It's the point where a stimulant is perfectly dosed for your physiology: you feel good, not jittery; focused, not frantic.
I learned very quickly that 4 mg is too much. It's way past my sweet spot with nicotine. I avoided the nausea associated with too much of the drug, but my speech became loud and fast. Even the camera crew noticed it. I was alert but scattered. I was Lindsay Lohan on a Saturday night.
Keep this in mind: the sweet spot should be a zone of productive energy. You should feel a nice, creative "hum" of mental and physical energy, not a caustic feeling of anxiety.
Although everyone is different, I see no need for the non-smoker to exceed 1-2 mg per dose. More is not always better, and that's certainly true with nicotine.
Once I'd established what a normal dose and an overdose felt like, it was time to stack nicotine with some other favorite mental and physical enhancers:
Nicotine + 1/2 Spike® Shotgun
This was almost too much at first; I was glad I'd decided to use only half a Shotgun. But as the nicotine leveled off and the Shotgun kept going strong, the effect was good. I could see doing this before tough leg training, but not necessarily before a job interview or studying for a test. Save this stack for pre-workout, and only when you really feel you need it.
Note: Drinking fluids and chewing nicotine gum at the same time may reduce nicotine absorption. To optimally benefit from this stack, chew the gum for 20 to 30 minutes, then consume your Spike® Shotgun, or vice versa.
Nicotine + Brain Candy®
Smooth and sweet effect. Long-lasting. This may be the best stack for concentration-heavy work projects, coding, hardcore gaming, making speeches, or giving presentations.
Nicotine + Coffee
If you're already feeling energized from coffee or tea, there's no reason to use nicotine. To me, this stack was a waste of nicotine gum. The two stimulants "crowded one another up," so to speak. To evaluate how nicotine works for you, use when you don't already have caffeine in your system.
The Stimulant Rotation Method
Here's another idea for nicotine: To avoid adapting to one stimulant, cycle between various forms. Spike® products, coffee and tea, Brain Candy®, and nicotine can be used in a rotation.
An afternoon shot of nicotine has allowed me to reduce my caffeine usage. A 2 PM trip to Starbucks or Pike's Perk has been replaced by a piece of gum.
It took me 40-something days to use all 50 hits of the nicotine, so I was "on" for over a month straight. To see if I experienced any withdrawal symptoms, I discontinued use abruptly.
The results? No problems whatsoever. Sure, I sometimes wanted a piece at 2 PM, but no more than I wanted a cup of coffee at 6 AM. I liked it, but I didn't need it.
As Starnes and Thibaudeau predicted, there were no addictive effects when using small, tactical dosages. Remember, people using nicotine gum for the purpose of smoking cessation are instructed to use around 10 pieces per day, and they can use up to 24 pieces if needed!
But, these instructions are not for those of us who choose to use nicotine as a cognitive enhancer and energy booster. I wouldn't think of using more than two 2 mg doses per day, and most of the time one 2 mg piece per day is perfect.
But It's Not for Everyone
If you decide to experiment with nicotine, read the warnings that come with your nicotine gum. It's not for everyone, especially those who've smoked before or have certain pre-existing conditions.
And please, remember to keep it away from your kids. What can be a nice buzz for an adult could be very harmful for a kiddo.
Also, some people just might not like the effects of nicotine or respond well to it. My wife tried it for a week and quit, saying, "I'll take HOT-ROX® Extreme over nicotine any day." It also made her sick to her stomach once during a training session.
Will it work for you? Your body is your laboratory. You'll just have to try it and see.
Another Tool in the Toolbox
Nicotine isn't evil, but it's not benign either.
Nicotine, in a "clean" delivery mechanism such as gum, is simply another performance-enhancing tool much like a cup of coffee, a shot of Brain Candy®, or an energy drink.
Anything can be taken too far and abused, but if used tactically, nicotine can help you power through your next diet, get you through the afternoon slump, or get you focused before your next PR attempt.
Or it could just make you sick.
- Systemic nicotine stimulates human adipose tissue lipolysis through local cholinergic and catecholaminergic receptors, K Andersson and P Arner, International Journal of Obesity.