For the longest time, the average student only had two options to combat drowsiness when staying up late at night to cram for the exam on the next day or to finish a paper at the last minute: to caffeinate or to power nap.
However, scientists have now found that there is a more effective method to stay awake during these long nights: to caffeinate and then to take a short nap. This is called the coffee nap.
This is contrary to the conventional wisdom that states that caffeine interferes with sleep, but is in line with more recent developments that more accurately exhibit how sleep and caffeine affect the body. Specifically, sleep and caffeine both work to counteract the effects of one molecule in the body, adenosine.
Adenosine is a natural byproduct of brain activity that builds up during the day. When this molecule accumulates to high enough levels, it begins interacting with receptors in the brain which then makes the body feel drowsy and tired. What caffeine does is block those receptors so that the adenosine is then unable to do so and thus make your body feel more alert.
However, caffeine is not able to block all of these receptors. It is fighting the adenosine for those same spots and can only block some of the receptors and not others. What sleeping does is naturally clear out the adenosine from the brain thus allowing the caffeine a fighting chance to block more of the receptors.
The coffee nap takes advantages of these phenomena by using a short power nap to clear out the adenosine during the 15-20 minutes it takes for caffeine to be absorbed into the body and begin blocking the adenosine receptors in the brain.
Research in multiple studies have shown that participants that took coffee naps are more alert and make fewer mistakes than others who only drank coffee or only took naps.
In the United Kingdom, researchers at Loughborough University found that coffee nap participants made fewer mistakes in a driving simulator than their counterparts. A Japanese research team found that those who took a coffee naps performed better on a series of memory test as well.
This research comes as there is rising interest in the benefits of napping on performance both in an academic setting and in a professional work environment.
Some universities have even taken to building or expanding student nap areas so that students do not have to sacrifice sleep to do work. Students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor are now welcome to nap in the university library’s new napping station that is home to six vinyl cots with disposable pillow cases. The university is also looking into acquiring futuristic chairs that have been designed for napping.
Students at James Madison University can take advantage of “The Nap Nook,” a room that houses six bean bag chairs and antimicrobial pillows that are reservable for up to 40 minutes. As the use of these rooms has increased, JMU has taken to adding white noise machines as well as leather covers for the chairs.
Boston College’s Office of Health Promotion has also encouraged better sleeping habits via its Sweet Dreamzzz campaign which aims to help students “identify barriers to sleeping well and develop coping strategies that really work.” BC students are also encouraged to meet with the Office's Health Coaches to develop individual health plans to develop strategies and goals for a healthier life.