Mixing Bad Sleep and Caffeine


Low on sleep? According to the CDC, sleep deprivation is a public health problem and can be linked to motor vehicle crashes, industrial disasters, and medical and other occupational errors. So it only makes sense that everyone is actively managing their sleep schedules, right?

Not quite. People of all walks of life experience repeated sleeplessness at one time or another. Students getting ready for final exams decide to forego their nightly rest and use the extra time to study. Professionals getting ready for a major presentation take advantage of PM hours to perfect their pitch. It happens all the time.

When experiencing repeated sleep loss, the usual response is to turn to caffeine. A cup or two of coffee can be all that we need to get the alertness we require to function throughout the day. Who actually needs sleep?

According to a new joint study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society, when you’re missing out on sleep repeatedly, caffeine may not do much. They looked into how sleep deprivation affects work performance, and the results may surprise you.


The data

The study consisted of 48 participants, half of whom were given placebos. Sleep was restricted to five hours each night for a total of five days. Two times a day the participants were given either 200mg of caffeine (about the size of a small coffee at Starbucks), or a placebo. The participants were then given multiple cognitive tests and measured on their sleepiness via the Stanford Sleepiness Scale, which is a simple test to measure an individual’s “alertness.”

The results were surprising.

“We were particularly surprised that the performance advantage conferred by two daily 200 mg doses of caffeine was lost after three nights of sleep restriction,’ said lead author Tracy Jill Doty, ‘These results are important, because caffeine is a stimulant widely used to counteract performance decline following periods of restricted sleep.”

The study is particularly important for professionals, like those in the military or in the medical field, whose jobs may require them to have extended hours of sleeplessness and who may lean on caffeine to help them overcome feeling tired.

While the study did not cover additional caffeine consumption per intake over 200mg, it’s important to look at the greater picture. You can’t rely on caffeine alone to get you through your week. A cup of coffee, no matter how good, just doesn’t equate a great night’s sleep. Sleep loss can be detrimental to your health, so it’s vital to your wellbeing to get the necessary hours you need each night.  

How much sleep do we really need?

The National Sleep Foundation laid out the following guidelines to help you understand how much sleep you should be getting each night.

  • Newborns (0-3 months ): 14-17 hours each day
  • Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours
  • Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours
  • Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours
  • School age children (6-13): 9-11 hours
  • Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours
  • Younger adults (18-25): 7-9 hours
  • Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours
  • Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours


Next Steps

As delicious as coffee is, it’s simply not an adequate replacement for sleep. If you’re not getting the amount suggested, ask yourself why. Is your room designed for optimal sleep? Is it too warm? Too cold? Is your mattress helping or harming? There’s always room for improvement, so consider adjusting your nighttime behavior to promote a healthier sleep environment.