How Do Smelling Salts Work
“It was October 22nd, 1849 and the Great Exhibition in London had recently opened its doors for business. Thousands of people visited the World’s Fair that year — over 2 million people — but there was one group of attendees who would have been more interested in other things than exhibits from foreign countries. The fair attracted men with an interest in fighting, and on this day, the prize ring was set up inside the grounds where it could be easily accessed by all those seeking to enter the world of professional boxing. When someone won a match in the ring, they’d receive their title along with bragging rights for at least one night.
The first champion to win his bout under such conditions was Tom “”Doc”” McCoy, who beat fellow Irishman John Morrissey in just 15 seconds. After winning the championship, McCoy went undefeated in 10 matches. From then on, boxing became even more popular as fans flocked to see fighters like Jim Corbett, Frank Butler, James J. Braddock, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis and others compete in the sport. But there was still another attraction in London during the exhibition’s run, and that was the smell of blood in the air. People paid money to watch these fights, but they also came for the free beer and food served after each bout. In fact, many pubs in London closed when the fights began because patrons wanted to take advantage of the free entertainment.
In June 1900, the New York Athletic Club (NYAC) held its annual prizefight. It was called the “”Battling Nelson Tournament,”” and featured four winners of what we call today heavyweight championships. They included Bob Fitzsimmons, Tommy Burns, Ned Hanlon and Jack Johnson. The NYAC president, Bill Dwyer, recognized that he needed something to keep the crowd entertained while the bouts took place. What he ended up doing was hiring two strongmen named Jerry O’Connor and Kid Williams to stand outside the ropes holding bottles of smelling salts. As soon as the fighters entered the ring, they grabbed hold of the bottles and sprayed them liberally into their faces. Within seconds, both boxers experienced a complete physical reaction. Their eyes rolled back into their heads; their chests heaved and sweat poured off their bodies. Their legs grew weak and their hands dropped to their knees. Most boxers would pass out within minutes and remain unconscious until the end of the round. Even though the idea worked wonders for the crowds, officials decided not to use the men again for future events. In 1904, the NYAC changed its name to Madison Square Garden and the tradition died.
Smelling Salts vs. Stinging Nettles
There are several different varieties of these salts that contain various chemicals. Some are made of garlic, some are made of onions and some are made of peppermint oil. All work by stimulating the olfactory nerves located in your nasal cavity. These nerves carry messages directly to the brain and allow you to recognize certain smells. If you’ve ever smelled burning hair or grass, you know how powerful the message is. Your nose tells you exactly what the source is, without any conscious thought.
When you’re faced with danger, however, your brain sends signals to your body to react quickly. One way your body does this is by releasing hormones into your bloodstream. Another method is to send chemical messages via nerve endings throughout your entire body. In either case, your brain recognizes the threat and calls upon specific glands to release certain substances. For example, if your attacker has a knife, your adrenal gland releases adrenaline into your system. Adrenaline causes your heart rate to increase, which increases your blood pressure, so your arteries dilate allowing increased blood flow to your muscles. At the same time, your liver releases glycogen, which provides energy for your muscle tissue. These reactions help prepare you for action.
But smelling salts act differently. Instead of causing your body to release hormones, they cause it to contract. That means your muscles become rigid and your heart rate slows down. Since your lungs no longer need to pump oxygen-rich blood around your body, they relax too. Without the stress of having to breathe, your chest doesn’t rise and fall as much. You may feel cold because your circulation is slowed down, and your skin temperature drops. A sudden drop in temperature can trigger shivering, which helps produce heat.
Although smelling salts don’t contain enough ammonia to sting your skin, they do contain sodium amylase that breaks down starch into glucose. Glucose enters your bloodstream and triggers histamine production. Histamine reacts with mast cells found in your bone marrow, causing them to release granules full of enzymes. Once released, these enzymes attach to cell walls and break them open. This allows white blood cells to get closer to damaged tissues and viruses. With smelling salts, the enzyme converts glucose into sorbitol and fructose, which stimulates your saliva production. Because saliva contains high levels of calcium phosphate, it keeps your mouth moist and prevents dryness. This effect also makes your lips tingle, giving you a sensation similar to nettle stings.
Despite their effectiveness, smelling salts aren’t used anymore in amateur boxing competitions. Amateur boxers are required to wear protective face masks during competition. Also, since most boxers rely on conditioning rather than strength, speed and stamina, professionals rarely utilize the odoriferous spray. However, they did find success using the spray during the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. Two sprinters, Carl Lewis and Gwen Torrence, wore protective masks against track rivals who threw punches. During the opening ceremony, a third sprinter, Ron Clarke, was carried onto the field and placed in the middle of three runners. He was given a bottle of smelling salts during a performance by Canadian rock band Spirit. While wearing their protective masks, the trio ran faster times than their opponents.”
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