Taking a breather

ArmourBite mouthpiece by UnderArmour

Donnell Boucher was skeptical at first.

The job of The Citadel’s strength and conditioning coach is to boost performance for the school’s athletes in every legal way possible. So when two Citadel professors approached him about a mouthpiece that might help, Boucher was doubtful.

“I was definitely skeptical at the beginning,” he said. “But with the research they are putting out, I’m a lot less skeptical now.”

In a recent study involving Bulldogs football players, Citadel professors Dr. Dena Garner and Dr. Wes Dudgeon found that use of the mouthpiece decreases levels of serum cortisol, a steroid hormone, following exercise.

In layman’s terms: Less stress during exercise for athletes, and a quicker recovery time afterwards.

“If I’m an athlete and I can improve performance without using supplements or drugs, that’s something I’m definitely interested in,” said Dudgeon, who along with Garner works in The Citadel’s department of Health, Exercise and Sport Science. They teamed with College of Charleston’s Dr. Timothy Scheet on the latest study.

Thanks to Garner and Dudgeon, their work space in The Citadel’s Deas Hall has become something of a go-to lab for the growing field of performance mouthpieces, which are not to be confused with mere protective mouth guards.

Garner’s work on performance mouthpieces dates back to 2005, when she did research for a company called Bite Tech, helping its engineers develop early prototypes. Bite Tech partnered with Under Armour in 2009, with high profile athletes such as baseball star Derek Jeter endorsing the mouthpieces.

Even South Carolina’s baseball team wore them during their back-to-back national championship seasons.

“The athletes say the mouthpieces help them,” said Garner, who along with Dudgeon presented their latest findings last month in San Diego at Experimental Biology 2012, an annual meeting of some 14,000 scientists. “But we are in the business of finding out objectively why and how it would help them. We are the first lab in the U.S. to do anything like this.”

The why and how is the fascinating part of the work, Dudgeon said. The Citadel’s Corps of Cadets provides plenty of test subjects, and not just in the athletic department.

“The Citadel is atypical for college campuses,” Dudgeon said, “because any time from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., you see cadets running around exercising, and they are more than willing to volunteer for things like this.”

On a recent morning, Garner hooked Citadel cadet Justin Tretera up to a machine that tracks oxygen consumption, carbon dioxide output, heart rate and other measurables. Tretera, who played baseball and football at Northwood Academy, inserted the mouthpiece and ran for 10 minutes on a treadmill while Garner monitored his numbers.

Citadel baseball players Justin Mackert and T.J. Clarkson wear the mouthpieces and did their own study as part of a health and wellness class. They tested the saliva of football players following weight training, and found lower cortisol levels in the players who wore mouthpieces.

“It definitely seemed like it made a difference,” said Mackert.

There are several theories as to why the mouthpieces make a difference, the professors said. The mouthpiece’s bite pad could change alignment of the lower jaw, leading to increased blood blow to the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls stress response.

“That could also improve oxygen and carbon dioxide kinetics and patterns,” Garner said.

Mackert said that simply having something to bite down on during stressful situations seems to help.

“I feel like it helps keep me focused and relaxed,” he said.

And if a mouthpiece works for athletes, it might also help in other high-stress situations. The Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine has asked Garner to present the team’s findings as they might relate to sleep apnea and other disorders.

“If it has the potential to increase cerebral blood flow, then we are looking at cognitive issues for students or people on the job,” Garner said. “Right now, we are doing work on a Department of Defense grant to make a military application.

“Soldiers are athletes in another sense, and if we can help them in stressful situations, that would be huge from my perspective.”