This study determines if coffee really does help with sleep deprivation

Thinking about how your coffee is going to help you at work on a short night’s sleep? Think again.

Previous research has suggested that there are benefits to drinking coffee, specifically seen in regular coffee drinkers who can benefit from caffeine intake. Caffeine does have a temporary benefit in reducing drowsiness and fatigue, but it can also create anxiety and even more drowsiness after the initial intake. A study from 2018 found that 64% of Americans drink at least a cup of coffee every day, which was the highest mark since 2012, but it doesn’t necessarily give you an advantage after a light sleep.

With millions of Americans sleeping worse than they did five years ago, a groundbreaking study commissioned by Michigan State University took a deep dive into sleep deprivation and found it is far more harmful to our day-to-day than initially thought.

“Our research showed that sleep deprivation doubles the odds of making placekeeping errors and triples the number of lapses in attention, which is startling,” Kimberly Fenn, professor of psychology at Michigan State University, said in a press release. “Sleep-deprived individuals need to exercise caution in absolutely everything that they do, and simply can’t trust that they won’t make costly errors. Oftentimes – like when behind the wheel of a car – these errors can have tragic consequences.”

The findings

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, had 138 college students take part in the experiment, which was centered around two cognitive tests. One test was performed across two hours over one evening, while the other was a 90-minute exam the following morning. Researchers had about half of the participants stay awake (77 participants) and the other half sleep (61 participants), with the sleeping half being assigned Fitbits to track sleep patterns.

For the first test, researchers examined the students’ attentiveness. The premise for the experiment was to have participants look at a blank screen and react as quickly as possible any time they saw a red circle appear on the screen. This test was designed to measure reaction time to stimulus.

The second test aimed to see participants’ ability to focus by posing questions where they were purposely interrupted in order to see if they could continue through the test via its instructions. Both sleeping and staying up all night groups repeated the two tests the following morning.

What researchers found wasn’t exactly startingly. Both groups had a 15% error rate in evening tasks, however, that rate doubled among the group that was assigned to not go to sleep. Participants who rested during the night had scores similar to their test the night prior.

“Our findings debunk a common theory that suggests that attention is the only cognitive function affected by sleep deprivation,” said Michelle Stepan, a Michigan State University doctoral candidate. “Some sleep-deprived people might be able to hold it together under routine tasks, like a doctor taking a patient’s vitals. But our results suggest that completing an activity that requires following multiple steps, such as a doctor completing a medical procedure, is much riskier under conditions of sleep deprivation.”

So what does this say about powering through your day with a cup of Joe? Not much.

While studies have shown that picking up a coffee’s scent can help our brain’s performance in regards to alertness, it’s been proven that caffeine’s effectiveness disappears when you’re sleep-deprived. Also, there are side effects which coffee-drinkers should know.

Drinking as many as six or more cups a day could increase the risk of developing heart disease by nearly a quarter, according to one study. Coffee also increases our heart rate and increases blood pressure. At Ladders, we’ve identified other ways where caffeine inhibits your potential.