University life is known for many things, but an overabundance of sleep is not one of them. The endless onslaught of lectures, papers, labs, and midterms that McGill throws at its students is not conducive to getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep every night. For many students, the most appealing option to combat their sleep-deprived states is to schedule a nap into their busy day, if not in a bed then at least on their library desk. While there are not many parallels that can be drawn between a university student and a toddler, the unreserved and delirious desire that the demographics share in regards to napping stands out as a point of similarity.
The other obvious option to restore mid-afternoon alertness is to consume copious amounts of caffeine. As the world’s most widely used and popular psychoactive drug, caffeine is a naturally-occurring stimulant that activates the central nervous system, staving off lethargy and encouraging mental acuity. While coffee, Red Bull, and Monster are all attractive options at three in the morning when your essay is due at noon, the side-effects—which can include jitteriness, headaches, aggravated anxiety, and/or sleep-disorders—may not be similarly desirable.
While it might initially seem counterintuitive, there is increasing evidence to suggest that a student in search of a much-needed burst of energy might have the most success by combining caffeine and napping. A ‘coffee-nap’ is the act of quickly consuming caffeine, most conveniently in the form of an espresso or an iced-coffee, before setting a timer and taking a 20-minute nap. In one study published in Psychophysiology in 1997, scientists found that taking a coffee-nap was significantly more effective in reinvigorating an individual in comparison to just napping or drinking coffee alone. Discovered two decades ago, the revelation of the coffee-nap is not a new one, but it certainly deserves more attention.
What explains the extra power of a coffee-fuelled power nap? Caffeine is chemically similar to adenosine, a molecule with a specialized receptor in the brain. Once enough adenosine builds up, the result is that groggy, tired feeling; however, when we drink caffeinated beverages, the caffeine competitively binds to the adenosine-receptors and thus blocks the adenosine from attaching. Taking a nap, on the other hand, is a process that naturally clears out the adenosine that builds up in the brain. As it takes about 20 minutes for the caffeine molecules to bind to the adenosine-receptors, a 20-minute coffee-nap allows for the perfect combination of clearing adenosine and binding caffeine, resulting in a more effective power nap overall.
The correct timing of the caffeine consumption is essential, as the power nap is designed to end before deeper sleep, or REM (rapid eye movement) cycling, begins. A 15- or 20-minute nap will usually limit the individual to the NREM (non-rapid eye movement) stages of sleep, and prevents sleep inertia, or the hangover-like grogginess that often results from a longer nap. The coffee-nap, therefore, allows the napper to hit the ground running after 20 minutes, and is the ideal solution for students who needs a quick break in the middle of their busy lives.