It goes against everything we think we know about caffeine, but it works. We spoke with sleep experts about why “caffeine naps” are effective.

By Emily VanSchmus
June 11, 2019

If you love a good midday nap, you’re not alone. According to the National Sleep Foundation, one-third of all American adults take frequent naps. Generally, we take naps when we’re tired and want to feel more rested during the day—but too often, a few minutes of sleep can have the opposite effect on our bodies. If you’re a frequent napper, you’re probably familiar with the feeling of waking up disoriented with a pounding headache when your alarm goes off after 20 minutes. The good news is, there’s an easy fix to your groggy state, and the solution might surprise you.

It turns out, drinking coffee right before a nap will make you feel energized and well-rested. It sounds crazy, but hear us out; there are scientific explanations to back up what’s known as a “caffeine nap.” To better understand the trend, we spoke to sleep experts and neurologists about how and why these kinds of naps work.

According to Dr. Sabina Brennan, research psychologist, neuroscientist, and author of 100 Days to a Younger Brain, our alertness or tiredness is controlled by a molecule called adenosine. Adenosine is a by-product of metabolism; it rises throughout the day and as it does, it connects to receptors in your brain, making you feel tired. As you sleep, your body naturally clears the adenosine, making you feel rested and alert when you wake up.

Related: The 5 Biggest Myths About Sleep, According to Scientists

If you feel tired during the day, a short nap can clear just enough adenosine to make you feel alert for the rest of the day—and a small about of caffeine can speed up the process. When you drink coffee (or any kind of caffeine), the caffeine travels through your body and attaches to receptors in your brain that are normally filled by adenosine. It actually prevents adenosine from attaching to the receptors.

“Caffeine naps improve alertness and performance better than caffeine alone or napping alone,Dr. Brennan explained. In the average person’s body, it takes about 20 minutes for the caffeine to reach these receptors, so the first trick is to fall asleep immediately after consuming your coffee and wake up 20 minutes later—just as the caffeine hits the receptors in your brain, making you energized and alert.

There’s also another good reason to limit your napping time. “The nap needs to be less than 20 minutes—any longer and you risk going into a deep sleep which can be very difficult to wake from and can leave you ‘sleep drunk’ and more tired than before you napped,” Dr. Brennan said.

Related: The Scientific Reason Your Sleep Cycle Is Better in Spring and Summer

In addition to the length of time you spend asleep, the time of day you choose to nap is also important. "At least a cup of joe a day,” is highly beneficial to our wellbeing, according to Dr. Joyce Lee-Iannotti, Director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Banner University Medical Center. And while she supports the caffeine nap theory, she explained that nap timing is key. “The ideal time to take a nap is between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.,” she said. “Napping later than that could interfere with your bedtime schedule and induce insomnia.”

So the next time you’re in need of a midday nap, take a shot of espresso, set your alarm, and curl up under the blankets. The short amount of sleep will clear some adenosine from your brain, and as you wake up you’ll experience the energizing effects of the caffeine.

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