How Caffeine Might Make you a Better Leader

I’m a leader. I want to maximize my brain power. And I care about how I treat my body. I don’t drink coffee or tea, yet I do strategically use caffeine with diet caffeine drinks and 5-Hour Energy (Disclaimer: I am in no way related to the company who produces 5-Hour Energy). I believe my strategic use of caffeine has helped enhance my cognitive resources as a leader. In this post I look at three areas: what caffeine does to your brain, cautions about its use, and how to strategically use it.

Caffeine is the most widely used stimulant in the world, consumed primarily through coffee consumption. The National Coffee Association says that nearly 2/3’s of Americans drink coffee. We also consume it through tea, weight-loss pills, chocolate, and energy drinks. It has gained the moniker as a,’waker-upper.’

How does caffeine work? It affects the brain in three ways.

  1. It blocks a neurotransmitter that makes us tired (adenosine). Neurons have tiny receptors where adenosine binds. Think of adenosine (or any other neurotransmitter) like a key and a receptor like a lock. So, when it ‘binds’ the ‘key’ goes into the ‘lock’ to create the tiredness effect by slowing down brain cell firing.
  2. It stimulates the brain to tell the adrenal glands to release adrenaline which gives us a boost of energy and increases attention.
  3. It improves mood by increasing the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a brain chemical related to pleasure, attention, and motivation. It also helps dopamine hang around longer in our brain.

What cautions should you consider?

  1. You can become addicted to it. It’s addictive because dopamine feels good and when we get addicted to it, we want more and more caffeine to maintain the same pleasure level. You will know you’re addicted when your try to stop because for a few days you may experience a dull headache, lethargy, sleepiness, and even depression. Most experts say the average person can manage 400 milligrams of caffeine each day, the equivalent of four cups of coffee. A bottle of 5-Hour Energy has about 200 mg.
  2. You can develop a tolerance for it. Regular caffeine use actually creates a need for even more caffeine because it increases adenosine receptors in your brain. Thus, you need more caffeine to block the tired effects of adenosine.
  3. Too much caffeine (more than 500 mg) can really mess up your body by causing such issues as muscle tremors, sleep difficulty, upset stomach, nervousness, and dizziness.
  4. Caffeine too late in the day can disrupt your sleep patterns. Its half-life (how long it takes the body to eliminate 1/2 of it) is 3-5 hours and its effect can last 8-12 hours.

How can you strategically use caffeine?

  1. First, I never use caffeine to wake me up in the morning. I try to get sufficient sleep so that I don’t use caffeine as a fall back for lack of sleep. I live in Canada and the winters can be brutal and overcast so I’m now using light therapy in the morning which appears to give me a nice natural wake up boost. I use a portable Philips blue light to give me 20 minutes of light when I wake up.
  2. Consider a nap first. A 10-20 minute nap can clear out adenosine and give you a nice mental boost without caffeine. If you can’t take a nap at work, perhaps these other suggestions below will work for you.
  3. Consider a nap-caffeine combination. It takes caffeine about 20 minutes to get into your gastrointestinal track and bloodstream. So, a cup of coffee or tea, a diet soda, or 5-Hour Energy just before your nap can give you a one-two punch.
  4. When I’m studying to put a sermon together, I find that 1/2 bottle of 5-Hour Energy about mid-morning gives me a nice mental boost. About 2 hours later I will finish the bottle off so that I’m only getting about 200 mg per day.
  5. About 30 minutes before I speak on Sunday mornings I drink a half of a bottle. I find it helps give me a bit more mental focus during my sermon.
  6. On days when I need lots of mental focus in meetings, I will split a bottle of 5-Hour Energy between mid-morning and early afternoon. I find that I’m more focused later in the afternoon to give those in my meetings my full attention.
  7. I seldom if ever use it after 3:30. Remember, it can stay in your system many hours.

I recognize that many readers may prefer to stay away from any caffeine. I respect that as I used to avoid anything with caffeine in it. Only in the last few years have I discovered that moderate use has helped improve my attention, concentration, and ability to think more clearly.

How have you used caffeine in a strategic way?

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