It’s the perfect Gatorade campaign: just a taste of the sports drink increases muscle strength! Surprisingly enough, this is no marketing myth. Scientific research has shown that by just swishing high-carbohydrate drinks in your mouth, the pleasure part of the brain is stimulated and sports performances improve instantly.
In 2009, physiologist Ed Chambers had endurance athletes rinse their mouth with two carb-containing drinks. In both cases, their performances improved, which was not the case for the times they received water flavored with an artificial sweetener. What was also interesting, was that brain scans suggested that by just getting a taste of the sugary sports drinks, the pleasure and reward parts of the brain were stimulated. Again, consuming the artificially sweetened drink did not have the same effect.
When two other researchers at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research conducted a similar experiment in 2010, they reached more or less the same results. They asked sixteen young men to hold weights for eleven minutes while measuring their muscle strength. As one might expect, their strength decreased more and more as the minutes passed. But when given an energy drink, the participants showed two percent more muscle strength only one second later. You probably wouldn’t notice these two percent during your weekly fitness class, but it could mean the difference between a silver and golden medal at the Olympics.
These findings raise the possibility of what can be seen as a “sixth taste sense” that is able to detect energy density. However, co-author Cathy Stinear also warns advantage-seeking athletes to not put all their trust in energy drinks just yet, “We’ve only just got preliminary evidence the mechanism exists. It’s too early to say how it is functional.”
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Gant N, Stinear CM, & Byblow WD (2010). Carbohydrate in the mouth immediately facilitates motor output. Brain research, 1350, 151-8 PMID: 20388497