Sleep extension versus nap or coffee, within the context of ‘sleep debt’

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Though extended night-time sleep mostly reduces the ‘afternoon dip’, little is known about evening benefits to alertness, or about comparisons with an afternoon nap or caffeine. Twenty healthy carefully screened adults, normal waking alertness levels, underwent four counterbalanced conditions: usual night sleep; night sleep extended<90 min (usual bed-time); up to 20 min afternoon nap; and 150 mg afternoon caffeine (versus decaffeinated coffee). Sleepiness was measured by afternoon and evening multiple sleep latency test (MSLTs), longer psychomotor vigilance test (PVT) sessions and a subjective sleepiness scale. Sleep was extended by average of 74 min, and all participants could nap 15–20 min. Sleep extension had little effect on PVT determined modest levels of morning sleepiness. Afternoon and evening MSLTs showed all active treatments significantly reduced the ‘dip’, with nap most effective until mid-evening; next effective was caffeine, then extension. Late evening sleepiness and subsequent sleep did not differ between conditions. Arguably, participants may have experienced some ‘sleep debt’, given they extended sleep and reflected some sleepiness within settings sensitive to sleepiness. Nevertheless, extended sleep seemed largely superfluous and inefficient in reducing modest levels of sleepiness when compared with a timely nap, and even caffeine. Sleep, such as food and fluid intakes, can be taken to excess of real biological needs, and for many healthy adults, there is a level of modest daytime sleepiness, only unmasked by very sensitive laboratory measures. It may reflect a requirement for more sleep or simply be within the bounds of normal acceptability.

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