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Scent of peppermint may boost your workout

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

By Pohla Smith, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Determined to beat your personal record in the next foot race? Need some extra oomph to move that furniture? Wish you could get some fresh legs late in your over-40 league basketball game?

You might want to take a whiff of peppermint from one of the new Peak Performance Sports Inhalers due to arrive soon in health food stores, mass market chains and health clubs.

Breathing pure peppermint has been scientifically shown through human testing at Wheeling Jesuit University to enhance athletic performance. Whether the reason for the effect is purely psychological or also linked to physiological changes in the brain has not been determined. All that the man who made the discovery knows for sure is that it works.

"It resulted in about three extra pushups no matter the person's fitness level; [running] times improved a second and hand grip 15 percent," said Dr. Bryan Raudenbush, the psychophysiologist and assistant WJU professor who did the peppermint tests.

All of Raudenbush's numbers are averages. A few athletes experienced no effect from sniffing peppermint and some benefited much more than others.

After the tests were completed, HealthCare International bought exclusive worldwide commercial and development rights to Raudenbush's patent and developed the inhaler, which comes in a canister like Chapstick. The price will be $2.99.

HealthCare International President Glenn Safadago was interested in the peppermint effect because it seems to be a substance that sports organizations will have no problem approving for pre-competition use.

"Pure peppermint oil is not controlled by the [Food and Drug Administration], which is the stamp [of approval] for an all-natural enhancer," Safadago said.

That also was the purpose behind Raudenbush's scientific study.

"I just wanted some non-pharmacological enhancer so we would have an option to blood doping or steroid use," Raudenbush said.

Sean Salamey, coordinator for personal training for UPMC Sports Performance Center, said whiffing peppermint may lift your mood, but it won't promote any physiological changes in the body that would cause you to run faster.

"There is a direct connection between mood and performance," Salamey said. "When you feel better or your positively motivated, it can have an effect."

But there is no evidence that it changes how your body uses fuel or shifts metabolic factors that could make you faster. "If you're looking to shave a few seconds off your time, it's not worth it in that respect. It's just mood altering."

Raudenbush got the idea of trying peppermint for sports enhancement after reading about a University of Cincinnati study that concluded sniffing peppermint allowed air traffic controllers to see more blips on their radar screens. "I just took it from there and went to athletic performance. I don't think that was on their agenda."

Raudenbush got a grant from the Olfactory Research Fund, bought a treadmill, recruited some students and tried releasing different odors for them to smell while they used the equipment. "I used jasmine, which is a good smell, and I also tried dimethylsulmide, a bad smell. It smells like a stinky, sweaty locker room. Only the peppermint had an effect."

At first Raudenbush thought the effect of the peppermint was purely psychological, but as his tests continued he came to believe the effect also involved the body in more physiological ways.

"If you got a pleasant stimulating odor and it changed your mood, you'd be willing to go the extra mile to perform. I still think that," he said of the psychological effect. "But I also think since we've used some other equally pleasant odors, there must be something special about peppermint besides mood enhancement. Otherwise something else special would give us the same effect."

He won't be pursuing that research. His specialties within his psychophysiology studies are in tastes and smells.

"It's probably better left to biophysiologists, who can do MRIs and measure activity in the brain," he said.

Pohla Smith can be reached at psmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1228.

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