Quality sleep and enough of it is vital for mental and physical health, but most people don’t get enough of it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults need at least 7 hours of sleep per night. They define short sleep duration as being less than 7 hours.
If you didn’t get enough sleep the night before, what should you do? You might head to Starbucks or crank up the espresso maker for a caffeine fix. But a new study advises against this. To stay awake and productive, it’s best to get more sleep rather than try to wake yourself up with a few cups of coffee. Caffeine can’t make up for a night of missed or poor-quality sleep. Still, people like to think that caffeine is a quick fix when they’re tired or sleep-deprived.
Why is coffee for wakefulness, not a healthy option? Coffee can disrupt your circadian rhythm, which sets your body’s natural sleep cycle. It can boost the stress hormone cortisol, as cannot getting enough sleep. So, you might get a double rise in cortisol when you drink too much coffee after a night of poor sleep. If you drink it throughout the day after not sleeping enough, the stimulant effects of the caffeine may still be in your system and make it harder to get quality sleep. Thus, it will be hard to make up for the sleep you lost the night before.
Coffee May Not Boost Your Brain Performance on Complex Tasks
Michigan State University researchers explain why coffee cannot compensate for sleeping well. After asking 275 people to stay up all night, they gave the participants an assignment that demanded their full attention. This was the easier of the two assignments. Then they assigned them a “place keeping” job. The researchers instructed them to execute a series of chores in order, without missing or repeating any of them, for a more demanding and difficult challenge.
How did it turn out? Performance on both the basic attention-requiring test and the more challenging place-keeping test were reduced by sleep deprivation. That’s not surprising since lack of sleep impairs the performance of some tasks, including driving a car. That’s especially concerning since it could lead to an accident. Respondents only performed better on the basic test that required attention after consuming caffeinated coffee. Caffeine did not improve performance on the harder place keeping exercise.
What did the study conclude? Although caffeine may keep you awake after a lack of sleep or a poor night’s sleep and help you perform straightforward tasks that require concentration, it doesn’t improve the ability to complete more challenging tasks that require more intensive cognitive power. You may think you can continue with your normal activities while you feel alert and awake, but you might be deceiving yourself. Caffeine does not appear to improve performance on complex tasks.
How safe are you driving or working more complex tasks after a bad night’s sleep, even with caffeine? You might feel alert and think you can handle it when you can’t. That’s the danger of not getting enough sleep and trying to stay alert with caffeine. You think you’re more capable than you are and place yourself at risk of an accident.
Lack of Sleep is Like Being Drunk
What’s the deal with sleep? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says after 18 hours of no sleep, your performance is like having 0.05% blood alcohol, and after 24 hours of no sleep, it’s like having a 0.10% blood alcohol level. That’s over the legal limit. People who slept less than 6 hours the night before are also more likely to fall asleep while driving.
It’s not just driving that being sleep deprived impacts, it can affect job performance too. That’s especially concerning if you work with heavy machinery or do any job where you have to think in complex ways to stay safe. You might drink a few cups of coffee to try to compensate for those lost hours of sleep. Doing this might keep you awake but it may not allow you to safely do your job.
As mentioned, you damage your capacity to get a good night’s sleep when you drink coffee to make up for lost sleep. The Sleep Foundation reports that caffeine not only has stimulating effects, some of which may still be present in your system, but it also interferes with circadian rhythms that regulate sleep. When you take coffee after a night of little sleep, you make it harder to make up for that missed sleep.
Caffeine stays in your system longer than most people think. Although it’s been widely reported that the half-life of caffeine is 4 hours, a study showed that this period can last up to 10 hours. Plus, people break down caffeine at varying rates. If you’re a slow metabolizer, the coffee you drank at noon may still be in your system at bedtime.
The Caffeine in Coffee Affects Sleep Quality Too
Researchers have also found that caffeine negatively affects sleep architecture, the stages your body goes through during sleep. The deepest stage comprises slow-wave sleep, and coffee affects how much time you spend in this phase. When you shortchange yourself of slow-wave sleep, you may feel exhausted in the morning.
To restart the cycle, you can drink another cup of coffee. Some people fall into a pattern of sleeping less and relying on coffee to compensate. This results in a vicious cycle of deteriorating sleep and increased coffee usage to stay up.
Furthermore, when your brain adjusts to the caffeine you’re consuming, you’ll require more to get the same level of alertness. As a result, you consume more coffee and sleep less well. It’s a difficult cycle to break. However, it all starts with limiting coffee and adopting a regular sleep routine. The key is to make sleep a priority. Don’t push yourself to stay up and then try to compensate by drinking coffee. As this study shows, it doesn’t work!
- “Caffeine’s Connection to Sleep Problems | Sleep Foundation.” 22 Jan. 2021, sleepfoundation.org/nutrition/caffeine-and-sleep.
- “Caffeine and Sleep – Sleep Health Foundation.” 19 Sept. 2018, sleephealthfoundation.org.au/caffeine-and-sleep.html.
- NewsBreak.com. “MSU Study Says You Can’t Replace Sleep With Coffee”
- Front. Psychiatry, 26 May 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2017.00080.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Sleep and Sleep Disorders”