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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Review

The effects of caffeine, nicotine, ethanol, and tetrahydrocannabinol on exercise performance

Dominik H Pesta13, Siddhartha S Angadi4, Martin Burtscher3 and Christian K Roberts2*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Internal Medicine, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, USA

2 Exercise and Metabolic Disease Research Laboratory, Translational Sciences Section, School of Nursing, University of California, Los Angeles, CA, USA

3 Department of Sports Science, Medical Section, University Innsbruck, Innsbruck, Austria

4 Healthy Lifestyles Research Center, School of Nutrition and Health Promotion, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ, USA

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Nutrition & Metabolism 2013, 10:71  doi:10.1186/1743-7075-10-71

Published: 13 December 2013


Caffeine, nicotine, ethanol and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are among the most prevalent and culturally accepted drugs in western society. For example, in Europe and North America up to 90% of the adult population drinks coffee daily and, although less prevalent, the other drugs are also used extensively by the population. Smoked tobacco, excessive alcohol consumption and marijuana (cannabis) smoking are addictive and exhibit adverse health effects. These drugs are not only common in the general population, but have also made their way into elite sports because of their purported performance-altering potential. Only one of the drugs (i.e., caffeine) has enough scientific evidence indicating an ergogenic effect. There is some preliminary evidence for nicotine as an ergogenic aid, but further study is required; cannabis and alcohol can exhibit ergogenic potential under specific circumstances but are in general believed to be ergolytic for sports performance. These drugs are currently (THC, ethanol) or have been (caffeine) on the prohibited list of the World Anti-Doping Agency or are being monitored (nicotine) due to their potential ergogenic or ergolytic effects. The aim of this brief review is to evaluate the effects of caffeine, nicotine, ethanol and THC by: 1) examining evidence supporting the ergogenic or ergolytic effects; 2) providing an overview of the mechanism(s) of action and physiological effects; and 3) where appropriate, reviewing their impact as performance-altering aids used in recreational and elite sports.

Common drugs; Doping; Performance enhancement; Anti-doping