Why This Sleep Doctor Wants You To Take A Caffeine-Induced Nap (Yes, Really)

mbg Associate Editor By Jamie Schneider
mbg Associate Editor
Jamie Schneider is the Associate Editor at mindbodygreen, covering beauty and health. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare.
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When it comes to caffeine and sleep, most experts would say the duo has a rocky relationship, at best. Of course, everyone responds to caffeine differently (some can tolerate an afternoon java; others will surely be up all night), but generally, the stimulant is associated with a poor circadian rhythm and disruptive sleep cycle. 

So why, then, does clinical psychologist and board-certified sleep specialist Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., also known as The Sleep Doctor, claim that the secret to the perfect nap is, in fact, coffee? "I call it the 'nap-a-latte,'" he says on the mindbodygreen podcast. "This is a caffeine-induced nap."

Do tell, Dr. B. 

How caffeine helps you nap. 

To be clear, Breus is completely on board with how caffeine can hinder sleep. "Caffeine is arguably one of the biggest offenders in our sleep," he says. The thing is, there's a difference between regular, restorative sleep and a quick, 30-minute-long cat nap. For the latter, caffeine may be more friend than foe. 

"It turns out that a buildup of something called adenosine in your brain is what makes you feel sleepy," notes Breus, as the compound slows down nerve cell activity in your brain (which causes drowsiness). What caffeine does is binds to those adenosine receptors and effectively speeds the nerve cell activity back up, which provides a jolt of energy. But here's the thing: To your nerve cells, caffeine and adenosine look the same. "If you look at the molecular structure of adenosine and the molecular structure of caffeine, they're off by one molecule," notes Breus (here's a diagram, the structural similarities highlighted in red). "The thing that makes us wake up and the thing that makes us go to sleep is literally off by one molecule." 

So how does this relate to your midday nap? Well, says Breus, caffeine can actually fool your nerve cells for a time, as "those receptor sites will accept caffeine" and allow you to sleep before the stimulant actually kicks in. It won't last long (about 25 minutes before your sleep burns through the adenosine, he notes), but he says it can work for a little cat nap.  

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How to create Breus' "nap-a-latte." 

If you're itching to try Breus' nap hack, here's what he recommends:

  1. Make a cup of black drip coffee, as it has one of the highest levels of caffeine
  2. Chuck in three ice cubes. "Merely to cool it down," he says.
  3. At around one o'clock in the afternoon (he advises against drinking caffeine too late in the day), slug it. 
  4. Immediately set an alarm for 25 minutes and close your eyes. Sweet dreams. 

The takeaway. 

Generally, caffeine and sleep do not go hand in hand. But for a quick, 30-minute nap, the stimulant might not be so terrible—it can even help you drift off for a bit. That certainly doesn't mean you should chug cold brew right before bed (this hack only works for short sleep spurts, as your nerve cells will recognize the caffeine once your adenosine burns out), but the science behind it is pretty cool.

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