It might sound like the most unintuitive thing in the world, but yes, coffee naps are a thing – and yes, they’re quite effective. You might be wondering what they’re effective for, and the short of it is that a coffee nap is in every way superior to a normal nap if your intended goal is to perk yourself up and get out of an afternoon slump.
However, coffee naps are not meant to replace actual sleep or help accentuate ‘naps’ that last longer than 15-20 minutes. A power nap, as it’s also known, has recently been lauded by researchers as a potential way to boost energy and improve cognitive function throughout the latter half of the day. But for individuals who nap to catch up on lost hours of sleep or just need the extra time between shifts, coffee naps are not going to be anything revolutionary for you. The science behind why coffee naps work so well isn’t completely established, but there is enough for a hypothesis. If you’re already into napping or simply have trouble with establishing a good rhythm after a short 20-minute post-lunch nap, then a coffee nap might be the perfect thing for you.
What is a Coffee Nap?
A coffee nap is simple both in principle and execution. You prepare a heavily caffeinated beverage, the kind you usually drink to perk up in the morning, consume it normally over a 5-10-minute period, then proceed to take a nap. This is best done early in the afternoon; around the same time, you experience an ‘afternoon slump’ between the hours of 1 pm and 3 pm. Your nap should be no longer than 20 minutes, which is roughly the limit you need to set for yourself to avoid turning a nap into a session of proper sleep, the kind that makes you groggy if you don’t get your full hours.
When you wake up, the caffeine you had ingested roughly half an hour prior should kick in and make you feel fresher and better than ever. Again, this is no substitute for sleep when you’re sleep deprived, and it isn’t very likely to be effective if what you need is just more sleep. However, for most, a well-timed coffee nap can completely eliminate your afternoon slump and give you a much-needed boost for the afternoon.
To understand why coffee naps work this way, you must take the time to first understand some basic principles regarding the circadian rhythm (also known as the body clock). While everyone knows that a healthy circadian rhythm generally includes going to bed around the same time and waking up consistently, part of a healthy and normal circadian rhythm is the afternoon slump. This is one of two energy slumps occurring per day, roughly twelve hours apart on a daily basis. The first is one we’re generally asleep for, and the other occurs in the early afternoon.
During these energy slumps, the brain accumulates a chemical known as adenosine, which basically tells us that we need to sleep. We process and go through our adenosine while we sleep, and power naps – as they’re called – help us ward off some of the effects of this natural afternoon slump without completely dropping into a good few hours of total sleep and extended post-nap grogginess. With adenosine, caffeine enters the picture. While adenosine makes us tired, caffeine acts as an antagonist to the chemical and knocks it out of our brain’s cells, while exciting our endocrine system, getting the heart rate going, stimulating the release of adrenaline, and so on.
Combining these two together is what creates the unholy union of the nap and coffee, by taking a 20-minute nap to give caffeine time to circulate and reach the brain, beginning the process of reducing the adenosine in our neurons, and then waking up just as the caffeine begins to interact with our brain cells, boosting cognition, enhancing memory, improving coordination, and just generally putting us in a more productive and happier mood than just a nap or just a cup of joe after lunch.
Why So Short?
While 15 minutes is just as good, 20 minutes is the upper limit of how long you can sleep before you start to slip off into what we consider REM sleep or rapid eye movement sleep. This is a portion of our regular sleeping cycle wherein the body effectively powers down for a few hours, and we go through a deep sleep that is much harder to wake up from effectively. And when we do wake up, we still need a few minutes to completely get our bearings and stop our grogginess. It depends from person to person, but what you want to avoid is any ‘long-term’ sleep. Instead, we’re going for a short nap interrupted by a burst of caffeine.
The best part? Studies showed that even if participants had trouble falling asleep during their slump, spending that quarter of an hour just resting or being half-asleep still showed a significant list of benefits in comparison to just a nap, or just a cup of coffee. Relaxing is important – relaxing while letting a dose of caffeine kick start your nervous system for another round of work is much better.
While this is not in any way shape or form meant to replace normal sleep and is not recommended for anyone with sleeping problems (from narcolepsy to insomnia), another study noted that among young men who were kept awake for 24 hours straight, those who took coffee naps ended up scoring roughly as well as they would usually score on cognition tests, versus individuals who only had a series of regular naps.
Brew yourself a strong cup of caffeinated coffee. A nice, delicious, full-bodied roast. Let it cool a bit so you can drink it fairly quickly. For many, the scent of coffee alone may be enough to invigorate them, but don’t fret – caffeine takes up to half an hour to really kick in, depending on the person. After consuming your dose of caffeine, find a quiet and dark spot to lay down for up to 20 minutes, and hopefully, fall asleep for the majority of that time. Then, get up, and enjoy the benefits of an effective coffee nap.