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Caffeine and Nicotine: Survival-Reversing Agents

Adrenalin rush. Heart rate increase. Tunnel vision. Auditory exclusion. Loss of dexterity. These are some signs that you are experiencing a stress-related activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The knowledge of what happens when ergolytic agents are used may help to control a response to an SNS activation during stressful police tasks. As police officers, we must be aware of the effects that ergolytic agents have, not only on performance but also survival on the streets.

Ergolytic drugs are those substances that impair physical, mental and psychological performance. When using these substances, you are reversing the benefits gained through training. Common ergolytic agents include tobacco chew, cigarettes, antihistamines, decongestants, cough and cold combinations, pseudoephedrine, alcohol and caffeine.

There has been much research done on how combat stress affects police officers. Bruce Siddle, the founder of Pressure Point Control Tactics (PPCT), has done a considerable amount of research. Siddle has accomplished several research projects on human response to stress during SNS activation and how SNS affects motor skill function.

What does the human body experience when police officers get into the heat of combat? The framework on which the human body works under stress includes tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, rapid increase in heart rate and deterioration of motor skills.

Being able to control these physiological factors requires the incorporation of a good wellness program to include physical fitness, proper diet, proper sleep and the knowledge that there are no benefits to products such as chew, cigarettes, antihistamines, decongestants, cough and cold combinations, pseudoephedrine and caffeine.

These products all cause vasoconstriction, which is a narrowing of the blood vessels resulting from contracting of the muscular wall of the vessels. When blood vessels constrict, the flow of blood is restricted or slowed. It is the opposite of vasodilation, which is the widening of blood vessels. The framework of the human body is designed during a high stress event to pump most of the blood to the major organs. The body does this for survival.

When the blood flow redirects from the extremities and goes to the center of the body, this is an occurrence of vasoconstriction, which naturally occurs during a high stress event. When the extremities such as the fingers and hands start experiencing blood flow that is directed away from them, the loss of dexterity is experienced. A motor skill that requires dexterity is classified as a fine motor skill.

Fine motor skills are those skills that require hand/eye coordination and hand dexterity. This explains some of the physiological factors that an officer experiences during a high-speed pursuit—such as not being able to push the seat belt release button and having difficulty with the radio and siren knob.

Siddle’s research shows that the deterioration of fine motor skills begins when the heart rate reaches approximately 115 beats per minute (bpm). Police officers need their fine motor skills for firearms for trigger control and accuracy, and they need their motor skills during a high-speed vehicle pursuit to operate all the electronics in a police cruiser. During a high-speed pursuit or response to a hot call, there are many things going on inside of the police car. These things include radio traffic, switching radio channels, operation of the siren and keeping the vehicle under control.

When the heart rate exceeds 145 bpm, complex motor skills begin to deteriorate and the visual system begins to narrow. As the heart rate exceeds 175 bpm, physical performance becomes very poor. Above 175 bpm, the officer can experience auditory exclusion and the loss of peripheral vision and depth perception.

Additionally, this is when the officer can experience “fight, flight or freeze,” sometimes referred to as the “three Fs.” This means the officer may experience some type of irrational behavior other than winning or fighting the fight. The officer may freeze in place, or flee. The reason for this is gross motor skills (those that use major muscle mass) perform well under stress. Running and swinging a bat are examples of a gross motor skill. So running away from danger would be easy to do under higher levels of stress because it requires very little decision making.

If vasoconstriction, tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, and rapid increase in heart rate are all occurrences that cause loss of edge on the street during the heat of combat, then why ingest a product that would cause a loss of edge under normal non-stress events? Why do they cause loss of edge in the first place?


Much past and current research exists for tobacco products. Research has revealed that nicotine is an extremely addictive drug and is the key ingredient in cigarettes and the smokeless tobacco products known as chew. In a twenty-year-old report, the Surgeon General stressed that nicotine is a psychoactive drug that is as addictive as heroin or cocaine.

Some athletes have used smokeless tobacco products for its nicotine properties to increase their performance. While nicotine will give athletes a “high” and they may feel more alert, eventually their performance decreases. Nicotine also causes negative changes in cardiovascular performance that impair heart function.

Nicotine is a central nervous stimulant that relaxes skeletal muscles, constricts blood vessels and increases heart rate and blood pressure. Nicotine can cause coronary artery spasm and lower the threshold for ventricular fibrillation (uncoordinated contraction of the cardiac muscle of the ventricles in the heart), and death has been reported in athletes using smokeless tobacco following vigorous exercise.

As a firearms instructor, use of force instructor and defensive tactics instructor who conducts much training at the local police academy, I have found there is an increasingly popular use of smokeless tobacco products among both recruits and veteran police officers.


In 1982 the American College of Sports Medicine issued a stand decrying the use of alcohol in sports, indicating that low amounts of alcohol (0.02-0.05g/dL, which is a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.02 to 0.05 grams per deciliter (g/dl)), impairs motor skills, including reaction time, balance, accuracy, hand-eye coordination and complex coordination. Reaction time is a very critical component of officer survival.

When an officer has the advantage of time, the officer can be better prepared to plan a response to a threat. Lost time in a survival encounter can start a chain reaction of stress. Remember, when stress increases, heart rate increases and the ability to perform fine or complex motor skills deteriorates.


Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant and one of the most popular mildly addictive drugs in the world. Caffeine’s strongest effects are felt for about an hour after taking it, but some effects usually last 4 to 6 hours. Caffeine causes increased neuron firing in the brain, which the pituitary gland perceives as an emergency and therefore causes the adrenal glands to release adrenaline.

As caffeine is a diuretic, it prompts the body to lose water through urination. This can lead to dehydration and is the reason that drinking caffeinated drinks is not a good idea when working out or doing other activities that require fluids.

Caffeine can also cause insomnia. The acid in coffee can upset the stomach, and coffee (though not the caffeine in it) can worsen ulcers, raise blood pressure and blood cholesterol and speed up the heart rate, increasing the risk of heart disease. Also caffeine at high doses can cause headaches. In less than an hour, you start to feel caffeine’s effects.

Caffeine is not all bad; in fact, moderate caffeine use has shown some benefits. For most people, moderate doses of caffeine, around 200 to 300 milligrams (mg) or about two to three cups of brewed coffee a day, are not harmful.


Antihistamine use is prevalent among all groups of people because it is a common over-the-counter medication. One of the most common side effects of antihistamines is drowsiness, unless the non-drowsy type is used. The sedating antihistamines can cause a decreased ability to concentrate, and an increase in reaction time and sleepiness. Sedating antihistamines can also cause problems with accuracy when shooting a firearm.

Having better physical and mental conditioning will reduce the effects that combat stress has on the body and help survive a violent deadly encounter. You should consider not using products such as chew, cigarettes, antihistamines, decongestants, cough and cold combinations, pseudoephedrine and caffeine.

Of course, not using ergolytic agents will not help prevent other physiological effects that occur in the heat of combat. For instance, vasoconstriction is a natural survival response, and through research we have learned methods exist to help officers reduce their heart rate, or at least keep it within a range that will allow a level of optimal performance. By not using ergolytic agents, the body is better able to respond more naturally to many high stress situations.

During his 23-year career in law enforcement, Ed Wilkerson has worked as a patrol officer, police academy instructor and is currently the Chief of Police with the Millstadt, IL Police Department. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Dec 2009

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