Can Peppermint Help Improve Athletic Performance?

peppermint oil

Story at-a-glance -

  • Besides being useful in the kitchen to make tea, add to salads and flavor other foods, peppermint has been found to have numerous uses for physical maladies, from nausea to mental fatigue, dry skin to respiratory problems
  • Several trials were conducted to see if peppermint could improve the performance of athletes, who subsequently reported decreased fatigue, more drive and enhanced performance overall
  • It is possible to overdose on peppermint oil, as a study in India concluded, due to compounds in it that can be toxic
  • As an essential oil or in aromatherapy, peppermint oil is extremely beneficial; in fact, a single drop can have a dramatic effect on performance, in part due to increased respiratory efficiency

By Dr. Mercola

Peppermint has a cool, distinctive essence that brings to mind a sparkling drift of snow or a green meadow in the spring. It's been used for centuries, all over the world, to make tea and flavor dishes of all kinds, from salads and chocolate to coffee and roasted meats.

Innovative individuals through the ages have come up with useful ways to implement peppermint for masking odors, but lately it's been tapped to energize clientele in dance clubs, offices and other places where optimal physical and mental performance is measurable.

Peppermint Performs Double Duty

A study was conducted in a dance club setting, during which customers rated their energy level on a scale from calm and quiet to active. Clients decided they felt more cheerful when peppermint was infused into the atmosphere.

Business owners determined that if people have more energy, they'd dance more, and if they danced more, they'd get thirsty, which is always good for the bar business.

Simultaneously, since smoking has been banned in most restaurants, clubs and bars, it hasn't taken customers very long to begin detecting unpleasant smells they'd never noticed before, such as body odor.

Scientists in Europe tackled both the odorizing and energizing effects of peppermint and began promoting "environmental fragrancing." Now, "aroma jockeys" — the term for professional smell designators — are employed in such businesses to optimize visitor return rates and subsequent revenue.

Musing about the implications, small business owners and CEOs wondered if the invigorating wafts of peppermint might motivate their secretaries to type faster. They tried it in a study called "Improved performance on clerical tasks associated with administration of peppermint odor." The results were quite stimulating:

"The present study investigated use of peppermint odor during typing performance, memorization, and alphabetization. Participants completed the protocol twice — once with peppermint odor present and once without.

Analysis indicated significant differences in the gross speed, net speed, and accuracy on the typing task, with odor associated with improved performance.

 Alphabetization also improved significantly under the odor condition but not typing duration or memorization. These results suggest peppermint odor may promote a general arousal of attention, so participants stay focused on their task and increase performance."1

Implications of Peppermint Odor on Athletic Performance

What industry wants their associates more motivated than the arena of sports? Figuring that if peppermint motivated people in other areas, it wouldn't hurt to investigate its use on athletes.

A clinical study2 called The Effects of Odors on Objective and Subjective Measures of Athletic Performance, published by the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, was set up.

This study involved a group of joggers on treadmills while a collection of fragrances, namely jasmine, lavender and peppermint, were piped into exercise rooms. The consensus among the athletes in the peppermint room was decreased feelings of fatigue and frustration, more drive and enhanced performance overall.

But the researchers wondered if the performance was actually better after smelling peppermint or if it was just a psychological consequence.

So a new study, The Effects of Peppermint on Exercise Performance, was done, involving 18 males and 22 females. This study actually measured performance. As a Nutrition Facts article described it:

"Participants were actually able to squeeze out one extra pushup before collapsing and cut almost two seconds off a quarter mile dash with an odorized adhesive strip stuck to their upper lip."3

According to the study:

"The actual physical performance can be enhanced as well. Participants did more push-ups, ran faster and showed a trend toward stronger grip strength in the peppermint odor condition than in the non-odorized control condition." 4

Significantly, similar studies done on basketball players' skill at free throw didn't match the enhanced performance previously shown. Researchers figured that it had to do more with skill (or lack of) than motivation.

Follow-Up Studies on Athletes and New Discoveries

It must have been rather frustrating to the researchers when their follow-up studies failed to bring about the same results as previously experienced. In fact, later tests showed peppermint essence had "no beneficial effect" on physiological athletic performance.

Then, the scientists began wondering if eating peppermint might achieve some sort of effect not seen in the unsuccessful trials. The new Effects of Peppermint on Exercise Performance study entailed 12 healthy male students who drank from water bottles containing one drop of peppermint essential oil. Nutrition Facts reported:

"All the subjects' performance parameters shot up, churning out 50 percent more work, 20 percent more power, and a 25 percent greater time to exhaustion. Improvements were found across the board in all those physiological parameters, indicating increased respiratory efficiency.

They attribute these remarkable results to the peppermint opening up their airways, increasing ventilation and oxygen delivery."5

In fact, every measurable performance parameter improved, including more than 52 percent more vertical distance and 40 percent more horizontal distance covered. Increased respiratory efficiency proved to be the pivotal factor.

Peppermint Oil Effectiveness and a Warning

Scientists submit a caveat for using peppermint oil: the fact that sometimes there can be too much of a good thing. Fact: You can overdose on peppermint oil, as one study in India revealed, because it's extremely concentrated, as well as contains compounds that aren't good when ingested in excess.

In this case, a 40-year-old female patient was nearly comatose when she reached the hospital. Doctors didn't know how much peppermint oil she'd ingested. A subsequent study referenced that peppermint oil may have caused hypoxia, or decreased the oxygen levels in her blood.

She was revived and sent home after 24 hours, but it was a very close call. Peppermint oil (at least according to this study) contains 30 known components, including menthol, menthone and pulegone, a known neurotoxic agent, which caused, in this patient's case, a near-complete loss of muscle strength before the hypoxia set in.

Other ingredients in peppermint oil include spearmint, water mint, cineol and other volatile oils, which another study says is useful for treating tension headaches, digestive disorders, spastic colon in patients undergoing barium enemas, and irritable bowel syndrome.6

As the study concluded, "Peppermint oil is well tolerated at the commonly recommended dosage, but it may cause significant adverse effects at higher dosages."7

The Power of Peppermint Oil

Essential oil made from peppermint may include a percentage of spearmint. It was used for thousands of years in Egypt and Rome, not just for its fragrance but for what it was able to accomplish physically. Today it's available in liquid form as well as in capsules.

Rosmarinic acid is another ingredient that helps relieve the inflammation that can trigger the release of harmful chemicals. It has an almost uncanny ability to ease pain and is particularly effective in your bath water for sore muscles or a headache.

In fact, studies show the aroma of peppermint to be not just antioxidant, but antiviral, antimicrobial, antifungal, analgesic (or pain relieving), and radioprotective, with antiedema (water retention relieving) properties. Other areas peppermint essence may be able to help clear up include:

Respiratory difficulties, as it works as both an expectorant and decongestant either applied directly to your chest or breathed in through an inhaler. Tests on subjects with tuberculosis revealed that when inhaled, their inflammation decreased, preventing it from either worsening or recurring.

Stimulated energy is one of the most sought-after effects of this essential oil, as revealed in the athlete studies, but it's effective for managing stress and mental fatigue and even for treating nervous disorders.

Anxiety, enhanced memory and alertness have all been found to be improved with peppermint essence or aromatherapy applications. A 2008 study in England noted that the scent of peppermint compared to that of ylang ylang showed increased alertness and memory in the former, but the opposite effect from ylang ylang.8

One study recommended peppermint oil to stimulate hair growth, since it was effective in an animal study, during which a significant increase in dermal thickness, follicle number and follicle depth were demonstrated.9

Stomach pain caused by gas is relieved, as well as nausea, such as what is precipitated by chemotherapy, and even irritable bowel syndrome and colon spasms.

Menopausal hot flashes or those induced by chemotherapy for breast cancer are reduced, studies show.

Used as a mouthwash, peppermint oil is effective because it contains the chemical chlorhexidine, which helps prevent the formation of the biofilm that promotes dental cavities. To help prevent bad breath, add one to two drops to your toothpaste.

Applied topically, peppermint oil may even help relieve drug-resistant herpes simplex virus infections.

Hair and skin both benefit from peppermint oil. It can be added to shampoo, lotion, body wash and massaging oil, with the added benefits of cooling your skin and get rid of dandruff and even lice. As a hair conditioner, it can help deal with "the frizzies."

Don't Use Peppermint Oil If:

One study indicated that gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can be worsened with the use of peppermint oil. The University of Maryland Medical Center reported:

"Peppermint can relax the sphincter between the stomach and esophagus, allowing stomach acids to flow back into the esophagus. (The sphincter is the muscle that separates the esophagus from the stomach.) By relaxing the sphincter, peppermint may actually worsen the symptoms of heartburn and indigestion."

Peppermint, being a stimulant, isn't recommended for everyday use, as excessive amounts can interfere with sleep and may also cause a number of other adverse reactions, such as:

Depression

Urinary problems

Stomach pain

Skin rashes

Either slow or rapid breathing

Nausea and vomiting

Diarrhea

Unconsciousness

It also should be noted that, according to another Nutrition Facts article,10 heavy mint consumption can cause decreased libido, as determined by men who drank four cups of tea steeped with peppermint (M. spicata) or spearmint (M. peperita); two cups in the morning and evening.

Always be cautious when using essential oils such as peppermint, because a little bit can go a long way. As a powerful, concentrated healing agent, peppermint oil used topically or inhaled in aromatherapy is effective and, as a bonus, smells nice.

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