Can 'coffee naps' pay back your 'sleep debt'?

Can “coffee naps” really make up for lack of sleep? (Getty Images)
Can “coffee naps” really make up for lack of sleep? (Getty Images)

Considering our busy, fast-paced lives, it is no wonder “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” has become the mantra for so many. But with roughly 50 million to 70 million Americans reporting sleep issues, sleep loss is quickly becoming a grave public health concern.

Debt is part of being an adult, but sleep debt can be deadly, contributing to a myriad of health problems, from diabetes to obesity and poor cardiovascular health. Coming to the rescue is the newly popular “coffee nap.”

But is combining two polar opposites, coffee and sleep, the answer to our national sleep problem? Dr. Sujay Kansagra, MD, director of Duke University’s Pediatrics Neurology Sleep Medicine Program and consultant for Mattress Firm, says that coffee naps are an effective solution because they combine two strategies for combating sleepiness: sleep and caffeine. “Using both techniques together is likely superior to either independently, for short-term improvement in alertness,” he says.

The key to an effective coffee nap is to drink a coffee rapidly, take a nap, and wake just as the caffeine is kicking in, which happens for most people after 20-30 minutes. Kansagra says. Two things can go wrong with a coffee nap, though. First, the pressure to fall asleep may actually keep you awake. Second, the caffeine you drink in the afternoon may make it harder to sleep that night, if you time it too late in the day.

With coffee naps, timing is everything. Dr. Jeffrey Durmer, MD, PhD, co-founder and chief medical officer of FusionHealth, says that “the strategy that often works best is to insert a nap into the ‘circadian lull,’ or siesta time, during the day (typically between 1 to 3 p.m.). This will accentuate the quality of your nap.” It should also prevent the caffeine from keeping you awake, as the half-life of caffeine (the time it takes for half of the drug to leave your body) is anywhere from three to five hours. Coffee naps could indeed be the perfect solution to make up for our sleep debt.

“Sleep debt is a term that refers to the amount of sleep you are not getting but that your body and brain need to fully recover and perform on a daily basis,” says Durmer. He says that this is caused by poor sleep quantity, quality, or timing (for those who work night shifts, for example). According to Durmer, only 69.6% of American adults get their minimum requirement of sleep (seven hours), and only 30.9% of American teens get the minimum they need (eight hours) every day.

Durmer blames a variety of issues for our sleep loss, including technology (which interferes with circadian rhythms), obstructive sleep apnea (which he says affects 25% of adults), other sleep disorders, hormones, and overly busy lifestyles, to name just a few. It’s not just seniors and kids that need naps these days.

In the past, experts have debated whether taking naps is even good for your health. Many have been concerned that they affect nighttime sleep quality. But Durmer says that naps can help you get the amount of sleep you need every day. He notes that it is debatable whether it is best to get all of your sleep in one stretch or break it up into a shorter night with a nap during the day. “It probably does not matter, as long as you are getting the restorative effects of quantity, quality, and proper timing of sleep,” he says.

Kansagra says that there is definitely a science behind naps, and it appears that the key to a good nap depends on how long it is. “Sleeping longer than half an hour puts you at risk of triggering rapid eye movement (REM), and a 90-minute nap completes the entire sleep cycle, which can leave you feeling more groggy than when you lay down for a nap in the first place,” he says. As most probably know, waking in the middle of a deep sleep isn’t fun.

If you struggle to get enough sleep, naps can go a long way toward making up for sleep loss. And the odd combination of caffeine and sleep can actually revive and refresh you the best, if you time it right. Of course, most experts agree that getting the right quantity and quality of sleep each night is ideal, eliminating the need for any kind of nap at all, coffee or otherwise.

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