At the Academy (Harvard on the Severn, Canoe U, Squid Tech), I was into napping. Any time I could squeeze a few zzzzs into a day, especially after lunch, I would; and so would many others. For me, I counted it as an essential escape from the rigors of military school, thinking if I slept half the day, I would be “away”from USNA half the time.
It wasn’t until much later I learned napping had other health benefits, too.
Sadly, napping is often frowned upon in our workaholic American culture. When we think of napping men, we think of Dagwood passed out on the couch after consuming a giant, delicious sandwich. Naps are thought to be habits of the lazy and unambitious, or the privilege of retirees with plenty of time on their hands. The person who falls asleep at his desk at work is laughed at and often fired. And when we doze off, we feel guilty — except in planes. Always nap on planes!
In reality, the nap stigma is incredibly misplaced. Naps can be one of the most powerful tools for self-improvement; they can increase not only our health and well-being but our intelligence and productivity. This is something great achievers have known all along. History is full of famous nappers. Noted thinkers, creators and leaders, like Edison, JFK, Churchill, Aristotle, Margaret “Iron Lady” Thatcher, and Napoleon, all were ardent nappers.
Cats and Dogs Know Something You Don’t
Humans are among the few animals that take their sleep in one shot. The rest of the animal kingdom consists of polyphasic sleepers; they alternate sleep and wake cycles throughout a 24-hour period. Cavemen likely slept in multiple phases too, so someone was always up to keep an eye out for saber tooth tigers. While experimenting with a return to polyphasic sleep has become trendy in recent times, the ideal pattern for human sleep appears to be biphasic–a long stretch at night along with a shorter respite during the day.
The ancient Romans were biphasic sleepers; at sexta (the sixth hour or their noon) everyone would turn in for some midday shut eye. This is where we get the terms siesta and reposo — traditions once popular in Spain and Italy respectively but which have largely succumbed to the encroaching go-go-go Western business style.
While the pace of modern life may keep us from being the biphasic sleepers we were meant to be, the urge for a daytime snooze is still hardwired into our biology. Many of us find it nearly impossible to get enough z’s at night, and sleep deprivation causes a host of bodily and mental ills, keeping us from performing at our best and enjoying life to the fullest.
I feel it every day, and stave it off with the obligatory midday caffeine injection.
Studies have shown when people are put into an environment that lacks any indication of time, they will fall into the long sleep at night/shorter nap during the day pattern. Thus, most of us are daily fighting tooth and nail against our body’s natural circadian rhythm. Match this with the fact most Americans report being sleep deprived, and we are becoming a horde of drowsy zombies in mindless, relentless pursuit of espresso instead of brains.
While a good night’s sleep is essential, a daily nap can buoy us up when we’re not getting quite enough shut eye. And for those who already sleep well at night, a nap can take take the performance of your body and mind to the next level.
The Benefits of Napping
Increases alertness. When your eyelids are almost too heavy to keep open, you’re not doing your best work. Make time for a nap and then go back at it. A NASA study found a 40-minute nap increases alertness by 100%. Other studies have found that a 20-minute nap is more effective than either 200 mg of caffeine or a bout of exercise. Yet another study showed that pilots who were allowed to take a 25-minute nap (while the co-pilot manned the controls!) nodded off fives times less than their nap-deprived peers. They also made less errors during take-offs and landings.
Power naps are effective at making you more alert when you wake up because there’s very low risk of falling into a deep sleep or another sleep cycle that causes grogginess. Your brain shuts down just enough that when you wake up, you experience a jolt of alertness. Study after study has shown that people working night shifts or in high pressure jobs with long shifts are much more alert when given the opportunity to power nap, sometimes several times a day.
Beyond pilots and space jockeys, there are many jobs that require you to be alert and can be dangerous to yourself and others if you aren’t. Firefighters are a good example, though your job or situation doesn’t need to be that extreme to benefit from being alert as a result of a power nap. New parents learn to nap when their newborn does, even if it’s only for 10 minutes at a time, though other factors affect fatigue in that case. Regardless, research is solid in that power naps provide a higher level of alertness and even awareness than before catching those short z’s.
Studies have shown that if you break up your day with a nap, you will be as alert and energetic for the second part of your day as you were for the first. So, if you’ve got an event planned for after work, take a nap before going out on the town.
Improves learning and working memory. Naps improve your working memory. This type of memory is involved in working on complex tasks where you have to pay attention to one thing while holding a bunch of other things in your memory. Napping also improves your memory retention; during sleep, recent memories are transferred to the neocortex, where long-term memories are solidified and stored.
For many people, everything from power naps to 90-minute naps can be very restorative, resulting in improved memory and cognitive function. Some experts say that people who can nap properly—meaning being able to take a nap without falling into a deep sleep and waking feeling refreshed—benefit much more from these short naps than turning to energy drinks and caffeine. The nap allows them to reactivate their memory and organize information more easily.
Improved memory can be really helpful for people who have to absorb and remember a lot of information. Some require this for their jobs, but students are a prime example, and a lot of research has been done about the ways students can effectively absorb the mountain of information they’re required to learn during high school, university and college. Studies have shown that students who nap after a round of studying often wake up with a better memory of what they had been learning and reading before their nap. It’s almost like hitting reset on the brain, allowing you to remember things that you would have otherwise forgotten.
Prevents burnout and reverses information overload. While we often refuse to take a nap because we feel like we have too much to do, studies have shown that putting in extra hours without rest dramatically reduces your productivity. It would be better to take a 30-minute nap and return to your work refreshed.
This was demonstrated in a study in which subjects performed a visual task over the course of four days. With each successive session, the subjects’ performance on the task deteriorated. But when the subjects were allowed to take a 30-minute nap after the second session, the decline in performance was halted. And after a one-hour nap, their performance actually improved in the third and fourth sessions.
Bigger companies have started to recognize the benefits of daytime napping and allow or even encourage employees to take a power nap. Some have even gone as far as to designate an area for napping. Not every company will jump on the bandwagon, but if you can go somewhere to grab a quick power nap during a lunch or early afternoon break, you could be more productive at work. But if you work the standard 9-5 shift, avoid taking naps mid to late afternoon because it could prevent you from falling asleep and sleeping well that night.
Heightens your senses and creativity. According to a foremost nap scientist (napologist? Napster? Napmeister?) Sara C. Mednick, napping can improve your sensory perception as effectively as a night of sleep. This means that steak tastes better, the sunset looks purtier, and Annie’s Song sounds even better after a good nap.
Napping also improves your creativity by both loosening up the web of ideas in your head and fusing disparate insights together.
Between your job, family responsibilities, personal relationships, social and volunteer commitments, and even just running errands, a lot of things drain you—both physically and mentally. This stress and exhaustion is a clear strain on your creativity, and it can seem almost hopeless to get back. But getting the creative juices flowing could come from taking a power nap. Stress takes it toll on the mind so shutting down with a nap could revive your mind and organize your thoughts, bringing your creativity back to you.
You don’t need to have what’s considered a creative job for waning creativity to negatively impact what you do at work. Power naps have been proven to help in this area, and a not-so-surprising amount of people struggle with it often. Every job requires some level creativity, from the obvious artistic requirements of graphic designers and architects to the deft creativity of administrative personnel organizing schedules or the insightfulness of an accountant balancing books. So, take a nap and see where your creativity goes — it could benefit you and your employer greatly.
Improves health. Sleep deprivation leads to an excess of the hormone cortisol in the body. Cortisol, known as the stress hormone, helps us deal with fight or flight responses. But excess cortisol increases glucose intolerance and abdominal fat, weakens the muscular and immune systems, stymies memory and learning, and decreases levels of growth hormone and testosterone in our bodies. These deleterious effects can lead to diabetes and heart disease.
When you sleep, you release growth hormone, the antidote to cortisol which which boosts your immune system, primes your sexual function, reduces stress and anxiety, and aids in muscle repair and weight loss. Napping gives your brain a chance to rest and your body a chance to heal.
The proof’s in the pudding. A study done with Greeks found those that took a 30-minute nap at least three times a week had a 37% lower risk of dying from a heart-related condition. Among working men their risk of death was reduced 64%! So, not only should you dance like Zorba the Greek, you should nap like him, too.
Improves mood. Odds are you know someone who is really cranky when they don’t get the sleep they need, or you might be that person. If so, you understand even more how important feeling rested is to your mood. Being tired can have a sort of snowball effect – you are likely to feel grouchy, be short with those around you, or simply have a tough time focusing. These and other physical and emotional reactions as a result of lack of sleep only continue to keep you in a bad mood or worsen it as the day or weeks go by.
The neurotransmitter serotonin regulates our mood, sleep, and appetites. It produces feeling of contentment and well-being. But when our bodies are stressed, higher levels of serotonin are used and the production of more is blocked. As a result, we can become anxious, irritable, depressed, overwhelmed, and easily distracted. According to Mednick, “napping bathes your brain in serotonin, reversing those effects and creating a more positive outlook.”
And the fact is, some days you just need that extra bit of shut eye. Whether you have a restless night or a stressful (and therefore tiring) week at work, a power nap can keep your spirits high. But if you have insomnia, sleep apnea, or other form of sleep condition, talk to your doctor before scheduling in any naps. People with these conditions aren’t usually encouraged to nap because of other health implications and risks, so speak to a professional first. Saves money. Instead spending $30 a week on Five Hour Energy or Starbucks, take a nap and boost your energy the natural and more effective way.
Lowers Stress. Stress is inevitable at certain times of your life, but it doesn’t need to be constant. Research has shown that psychological pressure and stress can be reduced by taking a nap. Stress is hard on your body and getting rest from a nap after you experience an increase in stress has been linked to improved cardiovascular healing, lowering the possible effects of stress on your heart. In addition, the hormones released during a nap or night of sleep contribute to decreasing your level of stress.
A lot of people find it hard to fall asleep during the day, even when they need it or could really benefit from it. If you give napping a try and just can’t do it, don’t force it but consider still taking the time to lie down and relax. Similar to when you go to sleep, your mind has to reach a certain level of relaxation and your thoughts can’t be too loud. Achieving this during the day in place of a power nap has been shown to have similar benefits to that of actual napping, so keep that time set aside to reduce stress.
Reduced Risk of Depression. Studies have linked people who get enough/the right amount of sleep to a lower chance of developing depression. And naps can help you get that perfect amount of rest if you don’t get it over night, so taking your power naps could be greatly beneficial to your mental and emotional health. Of course, everyone is different, and the amount of sleep needed will vary. Get in tune with your body and figure out the length and amount of naps you need to help both your mind and body.
Similar to the reasoning for lower stress, naps give your body the rest it needs to function and perform at its best, and feeling your best all around plays a role in depression. Depression may also be reduced because stress can cause excess hormones linked to depression. Since naps can lower stress, it can then lower the risk of depression as well—napping can help balance hormones that cause mental health problems. Or even just considering the energy, alertness, reduced stress and increased productivity, the other benefits can contribute to improved mental health.
Reduced Risk of Cardiovascular Disease. There’s still debate and differing opinions about whether or not naps can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, but as research continues to link the two more experts are beginning to see the potential of it. It’s believed that regular naps can lower blood pressure, but even more staggering are the results of studies that have shown a significant decrease in the risk of dying from a heart attack. People in high stress jobs greatly benefit from the cardiovascular healing properties of naps because stress can strain the heart and increase the risk of cardiovascular problems.
Studies in countries that typically have a lower mortality rate and lower risk of heart disease emphasize the importance of not only getting your rest but being healthy in other ways—exercise and healthy diets are main contributors to heart health. When mixed in with regular power naps, this type of lifestyle is bound to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. So, if you haven’t tried napping, it’s not too late to enjoy the many possible benefits of rejuvenating and healing your body in many ways, and you may even help your heart.
It’s awesome. Seriously, people. Napping is awesome. Take it from my new grandbaby.
Understanding the Stages of Sleep
All napping is good, but you can also tailor your nap to your specific needs. But before we delve into that, we need to talk about what each stage of sleep does for your mind and body.
There are five various stages of sleep, 1,2,3,4, and REM (Rapid Eye Movement). You cycle through them repeatedly as you sleep or nap: 1,2,3,4, 2, REM, 2,3,4,2, REM and so on. Each cycle lasts 90-100 minutes.
Stage 1: Lasting 2-5 minutes, this stage transitions you into sleep. Your thoughts and mental associations loosen up. This state of sort of wakeful dreaming has been used by artists and thinkers to cultivate rich ideas. We’ll cover this in-depth in a future post.
Stage 2: Motor skills and complex tasks you’ve been working on are solidified. Your energy and stamina are strengthened and senses sharpened. You spend about 50% of your sleep time in Stage 2.
Stages 3 and 4: In these stages you slide into Slow Wave Sleep. Your body stops releasing cortisol altogether and extra growth hormone goes to work restoring your body, repairing tissues, lowering stress, metabolizing fats and moving carbs out of your body. And your mind is cleared; memories that aren’t being used are pruned away, strengthening what remains and making room for new information. Information that you’ve recently and consciously learned such as the dates for a history test are solidified. You spend about 30% of your sleep time in Stages 3 and 4.
REM: During REM your brain shuttles your recently-made memories from their short term holding tank in the hippocampus to long term storage. The information is thus made permanent; if you don’t sleep soon after a learning session, you’ll lose much of what you studied. Creativity is given a boost as spatial orientation and perceptual skills are sharpened and the different insights and complex ideas you have swirling around in your melon are fused together. You spend about 20% of your sleep time in REM.
Tailoring Your Nap to Your Needs
According to Dr. Mednick, the perfect nap for everyone is 90 minutes long and taken between 1 and 3 in the afternoon. At this time, and at this length, your nap will consist of the optimal balance of all the different sleep stages. The ratio of the sleep stages in this nap exactly mirror that of nocturnal sleep. But of course, not everyone has an hour and a half to saw off during the day. And sometimes you want to tailor your nap to your particular needs on a particular day.
Note: These recommendations are based on an average adult sleep schedule (11-12 am to 6-8 am). If you’re a night owl or have a different sort of schedule, check out Dr. Mednick’s book, Take a Nap! It has a “nap wheel” and formula for calculating your perfect nap based on when you wake up and your particular needs.
You need a boost of creativity. Don’t know how many happy little clouds to add to your painting, and Bob Ross won’t be on until 3? Does writing your essay for English class feel, as Ronald Reagan put it, like crapping a pineapple? Then you need a dose of REM sleep, which increases your creativity. You’ll need a longer nap to get to the REM stage; and since potential REM peaks early in the day and declines from there, aim for something like a 90-minute nap before 2 pm.
You need stamina. Running a race that evening? Going from one job to the next? You need Stage 2 sleep which you can get in a 20-minute power nap. Don’t go down for any longer than 20 minutes though. We’ve all experienced naps that leave us groggy when we wake up. This is sleep inertia and happens when you awaken during Slow Wave Sleep. So, you need to wake up before you slip into Stage 3.
Studies have found that a 20-minute nap 8 hour after you wake up will boost your stamina more than sleeping an extra 20 minutes in the morning. So instead of hitting the snooze button, save those minutes for an afternoon siesta.
You need to relax. While REM sleep declines during the day, SWS increases. So, if you’re feeling stressed, shoot for a longer nap after 2 pm and ideally in the early evening, so your body can get a cortisol break and repair itself. Naps will not affect your nighttime sleep as long as you wake from your nap three hours before bedtime.
You need to pull an all-nighter. Instead of downing can after can of Red Bull, try what researchers call the “prophylactic nap.” Taking a preventive nap in anticipation of sleep deprivation is more effective in maintaining cognitive performance and alertness than taking no nap at all, taking a nap when your sleep debt has already made you tired, and even taking multiple doses of caffeine. Any length of nap will help, but according to Mednick an hour and a half is the preventive nap sweet spot because “it will take you through a full cycle of sleep and bring you out in REM or Stage 2 Sleep, allowing you to avoid sleep inertia.” Keep in mind that the effects of a prophylactic nap only last 8-10 hours; nothing can keep your brain from starting to unravel if you skip two nights of sleep.
You need to ace a test. After you study and before test time, take a 90-minute nap. Stage 2 will increase your alertness, stages 3 and 4 will clear your mind of unnecessary clutter, solidify the things you just studied, and lower your stress, and REM sleep will move the information into permanent storage and sort through the complex information you just learned.
You need immediate alertness. Try a “caffeine nap.” Researchers at Loughborough University tested several ways to improve the alertness of drivers and found the “caffeine nap” to be the most effective method. You down a cup of coffee or other caffeinated beverage and then immediately hunker down for a 15 to 20-minute nap. Again, don’t go any longer or you’ll awaken with sleep inertia. The caffeine clears your body of adenosine, a chemical which makes you sleepy. It takes awhile for the caffeine to circulate through your system, so it doesn’t affect the quality of the nap. Instead, it kicks in in tandem with the refreshment you would feel upon awakening from a normal power nap. I’ve personally found the caffeine nap to be effective, especially when you’re crunched for time; it’s easier to get up and keeps you from the temptation of turning a 20-minute nap into an hour and a half session.
Squeezing in Nap Time
It would be awesome if offices took a cue from kindergarten and broke out cookies, milk, and nap mats once a day. Maybe a little finger painting, too.
In the real world, it can be hard to catch some z’s at work. Getting caught asleep at your desk is not a good way to earn respect at your job, but most people get an hour for lunch. You can easily eat for half that time, skip the double latte, and go take a snooze in your car for the other half. Tell your boss all about the benefits of napping and see if you can get a couch in some rarely-used room.
If you’re a student, toss embarrassment to the wind and curl up somewhere. If you can’t nap during the day, take a short pre-or post-dinner nap.
Remember, all you need to do it carve out 20 minutes somewhere in your day. One study showed that even a 6-minute nap improves memory function. So, you can even sneak one in while the guy at the desk next to you runs to the snack machine.
At the very least, learn to embrace the nap and the napping of others. Napping is not a character defect! Many great people have taken advantage of the benefits of napping. It is a wonderful, wonderful way to improve your life.
Get help Resetting and Recharging
If you are slacking in your sleep game, it places a tremendous strain on your nervous system, body and overall health. Damage from sleep deficiency can occur in an instant (such as a car crash), or it can harm you over time. For example, ongoing sleep deficiency can raise your risk for some chronic health problems. It also can affect how well you think, react, work, learn, and get along with others.
So, if you’re not sleeping well or aren’t feeling rested when you wake up in the morning, it’s important to talk to your doctor and ask if a sleep study is right for you. To find a healthcare professional, use HealthLynked. It is a first of its kind medical network built as a social ecosystem with a higher purpose – improving healthcare. Go to HealthLynked.com to learn more, sign up for free, connect with your doctor, find a new doctor, and securely store and share your health information. Download our HealthLynked app available on Apple and Android devices.
Take a Nap! Change Your Life by Sarah C. Mednick, Ph.D
Unleash the power of the Nap, Brett & Kate McKay | February 7, 2011, Last updated: May 28, 2018