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How to Use Caffeine to Optimise Performance

February 20, 2023
Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash.

If used in the right way, caffeine can enhance our mental and physical performance, as well as provide us with a number of health benefits. As Dr. Andrew Huberman explains in his podcast episode “Using Caffeine to Optimize Mental & Physical Performance, there are many strategies for using caffeine to your advantage.

What does caffeine do to the brain?

Caffeine has neuroprotective effects, meaning that it triggers the release of certain chemicals in the brain (including dopamine) which increase levels of alertness, motivation and drive. Caffeine also impacts chemical systems in the brain that are related to mood and well-being which can, in turn, have an anti-depressant effect. These benefits peak at about 30 minutes after ingestion and can last for up to 60 minutes. Some effects can already be felt after just 5 minutes (assuming a whole cup of coffee is consumed within a short amount of time).

Caffeine also blocks adenosine receptors in the brain, which are responsible for making the body feel sleepy when it needs to rest. By blocking these receptors, caffeine allows you to feel energised and motivated. It’s important to note that caffeine doesn’t eliminate adenosine, it merely blocks the effects of the chemical until the caffeine wears off, at which point the backlog of adenosine can result in a person feeling a sudden wave of tiredness in the afternoon - a few hours after their morning coffee.

There is also evidence to suggest that caffeine can reduce a person’s reaction time, helping them improve their physical or cognitive performance. A person may be able to catch a ball quicker, or think of an answer to a question faster, for example. Because of the ways that caffeine interacts with the brain, it can provide a number of mental and physical benefits if consumed in the right way.

Why do people enjoy drinking coffee?

Dr. Huberman also explains that caffeine is a ‘reinforcer of experience’, meaning that it causes a subconscious preference not only for the food or drink item that contains the caffeine, but for the whole experience. Because caffeine usually makes you feel good, your brain will develop a preference for the whole situation that made you feel good, i.e. the cup from which you drink your coffee, the coffee shop that you usually go to, the friends with whom you drink your coffee etc. Simply put, caffeine reinforces the positive experience you have when you drink coffee.

How much caffeine is needed in order to reap the optimum benefits?

Ideally, coffee-drinkers should have 1-3mg of caffeine per kg of body weight in order to feel the positive effects of caffeine (this refers to a single serving, and not a daily amount). For example, if you weigh 60kg, you’d need a cup of coffee with ~60mg of caffeine in order to feel the benefits.

Having too much caffeine in your coffee, which is often the case at popular coffee chains, can lead to feelings of anxiety and jitteriness. There are some steps you can take to avoid these negative effects, like drinking the same amount of water as you do coffee, and adding some electrolytes to your water. This helps offset the excretion of sodium that caffeine causes, which in turn may cause feelings of anxiety and tiredness.

Photo by Karyna Panchenko on Unsplash.

Some key ways to use caffeine as a tool for optimising mental and/or physical performance:

1. Timing

When to have your first coffee of the day

A crucial factor when it comes to ensuring that you feel energised after your caffeine intake, while also avoiding a wave of afternoon tiredness, is timing. Dr. Huberman suggests that people should wait 90-120 minutes after waking up before they have their first cup of coffee. This is because there is usually residual adenosine in our bodies when we wake up and we should wait for it to clear out completely before ingesting any caffeine. If we don’t, we’ll simply feel the effects of that adenosine when the caffeine wears off, and we’ll feel sleepy or drowsy in a matter of hours. A good way to ensure that you clear out any adenosine in your system after a good night’s sleep is by boosting your cortisol: expose yourself to bright light as soon as you wake up (natural outdoor light, ideally, but artificial light is also effective) and move or exercise, if possible.

How to use caffeine to optimise information retention

If you need to learn or memorise information, it is better to have coffee after your study session and not before / during. This is because caffeine helps spike your adrenaline, which impacts the way your brain deals with the information it received shortly before. In other words, the intake of caffeine (and the adrenaline spike it causes) will help you retain the information you’ve already read or processed.

When to have your last coffee of the day

Caffeine stays in our bodies for a surprisingly long period of time. If you have a coffee at 10am, 25% of that caffeine will still have a biological effect on your body at midnight. Although some people might be able to have coffee in the afternoon or evening and fall asleep easily, without their overall hours of sleep being affected, caffeine is shown to negatively impact a person’s quality of sleep - which is crucial for everyday functioning. According to Dr. Huberman, people should avoid having caffeine 10-12 hours before sleep in order to avoid compromising their sleep quality.

If you generally wake up at 6am and go to bed at 10pm, this would mean that you have your first cup of coffee at 7.30am and, if you drink more than one cup per day, your last cup would need to be at 10am (or 12pm, the latest). This will help avoid any interference with your sleep quality and, as a result, will help improve your mental and physical function, immune system and general health.

2. Dosage

As mentioned earlier, it’s important to have the right amount of caffeine in order to optimise its benefits without experiencing its unpleasant side effects. In a single serving, coffee-drinkers should have 1-3mg of caffeine per kg of body weight in order to feel the positive effects. It has also been shown that ingesting caffeine on an empty stomach will optimise its performance-enhancing effects, but if you find that caffeine makes you feel jittery or anxious it would help to avoid this and instead make sure to eat something before having a cup of coffee.

3. Abstinence

For maximum performance enhancing effects, it may be useful for people who drink coffee regularly to abstain from coffee entirely for at least 5 days prior to a big event or particular occasion. By resuming coffee consumption on the big day, the effects of the caffeine will be enhanced.

Photo by Nigel Msipa on Unsplash.

So, if you’re interested in harnessing the power of caffeine to optimise your mental and physical performance, it’s important to be mindful of:

  • When you have your first and last cup of coffee
  • How much caffeine you consume per cup
  • Whether you want to drink coffee on an empty stomach
  • Taking a break from drinking coffee in the days leading up to a specific occasion or event to enhance the effects of the caffeine upon re-exposure