Coffee naps, or “napaccinos” as Daniel Pink—author of six thought-provoking books on business, work and human behavior, including New York Times best-seller “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” (Riverhead Books, January 2018)—dubbed them, are all the rage in the sleep world.

Yes, coffee naps: drinking a cup of coffee and then immediately taking a power nap. However counterintuitive it may seem, studies have shown that coffee, or caffeinated, naps are more effective than coffee or napping alone. They are a particularly strategic way to boost mental alertness and productivity when your energy takes a dip during the daytime, and science tells us why.

Perfect timing

For starters, caffeine takes about 20 minutes to kick in, which also happens to be the ideal length of time to take a nap. Sleep much longer than 20 minutes and you run the risk of waking up in some serious “post-nap funk” from sleep inertia. Coffee naps give you an extra kick of caffeine just as you’re waking up from the perfect nap. A win-win!

Your brain on caffeine  

But the real reason scientists believe that coffee naps are so effective is thanks to a quirk in the way both caffeine and sleep affect the brain. During waking hours, a chemical compound called adenosine (a byproduct of brain activity) builds in the brain—eventually inhibiting arousal and causing drowsiness. Sleeping clears adenosine from the brain.

Caffeine, which happens to be a similarly shaped molecule, works by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain. Once caffeine is absorbed in the bloodstream, the chemical enters the brain where it takes up real estate in receptors normally filled with adenosine, having the reverse affect. However, as effective as coffee is, caffeine molecules still have to compete with adenosine for receptor space, unable to block every single one.

And that’s the genius of coffee naps. Taking a quick nap in the 20 minutes or so it takes caffeine to metabolize effectively reduces the amount of adenosine competing for receptor space—clearing the way for more caffeine. The catch is that you have to be awake when the caffeine reaches your brain.

The art of coffee napping

By now you’ve got the concept: Drink a cup of joe fairly fast and immediately take a nap. Don’t stress if you can’t or don’t actually fall asleep. Simply reaching a restful half-sleep has been proved just as effective.

Here are Pink’s five secrets to taking the perfect nap:

  1. Find your afternoon low point. The author suggests monitoring your afternoon mood and energy levels for a week to determine your optimal nap time, which is usually around seven hours after waking.
  2. Create a peaceful environment—one that is conducive for resting.
  3. Down a cup of coffee. If drinking a hot beverage quickly is tough for you, try an iced coffee or espresso.
  4. Set a timer for 25 minutes. Napping for 10 to 20 minutes gives you a proven mental boost without experiencing sleep inertial, and when you wake up, the caffeine will have just kicked in.
  5. Repeat consistently. The author points to evidence that routine napping is more effective than napping infrequently or at random.

Photo credit: Nathan Dumlao, Unsplash