Tim Scheett scoffed at the idea. It was impossible. Absurd. Completely ludicrous. But, as a man of science, he had to look at the evidence – which was piling up, study after study after study.
He couldn’t deny the facts; he could, however, try to explain them. And – although he still has questions – he is now so convinced (and intrigued) that you might say he’s become a mouthpiece for, well, mouthpieces.
“Everyone rolls their eyes. I rolled my eyes. It’s just bizarre that something as simple as a mouthpiece could have an effect on the body – and on the brain!” says the assistant professor of health and human performance, who teamed up with colleagues from The Citadel to study the impact of ArmourBite performance mouthpieces on athletic endurance and recovery and found that athletes who wore the devices during the exercise trials had lower levels of cortisol, a steroid hormone that responds to stress and fatigue. “Cortisol impedes building muscle tissue and slows down recovery after a workout. So, wearing one of these mouthpieces helps athletes get more out of their workouts.”
That much, it seems, is no secret. Distributed by UnderArmour and manufactured by Bite Tech Laboratories, ArmourBite performance mouthpieces are worn by professional and college athletes across a broad range of sports – from baseball to golf to weightlifting. None of the athletes is paid to use the custom-fit devices, which run around $500.
“Clearly there’s a reason they’re wearing them,” says Scheett, who had his own ArmourBite mouthpiece made and noticed a marked decrease in tension when he began wearing it while driving his car. “It had a significant effect on cortisol levels in every single study. But why?”
Although Scheett and his colleagues don’t yet have that particular answer, they do have a working theory: The two molar pads on the performance mouthpiece move the jaw forward and down, which triggers two cranial nerves in the jaw, which integrate with the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that responds to stress.
“We think it’s all through the jaw alignment – that’s what’s doing it, not the mouthpiece,” he says, adding that Olympic weightlifters in the ’60s and ’70s used pieces of leather for what was probably the same purpose. “You could put anything in there – a piece of wax may do it if it would stay in place. It’s because, when you wear it, you can’t clench your teeth.”
That, in turn, opens up the airways to allow more oxygen in – and those of us who’ve ever been told to “take a deep breath” know how de-stressing that can be.
“Our research could reach across many different areas – including psychological stress,” says Scheett, noting that once they definitively determine the cause of lowered cortisol levels, the researchers hope to turn their attention to the mouthpieces’ effects on muscular strength and power. “There’s still a lot
to do and learn. From a research standpoint, it’s like putting together
a puzzle. It’s fascinating.”
He shakes his head in disbelief: “I’m excited … a mouthpiece.”
– Photos by Gately Williams