It’s difficult for most of us to squeeze a nap in these days. Although the world has embraced siesta culture for thousand of years, in the modern era, daylight hours have become synonymous with activity only, ie work and productivity.
Yet, as science develops a better understanding of sleep physiology, and the way our body clocks function, we’re starting to understand why our forefathers may have held naps in such high regard.
It’s all about timing
Depending on the length of your nap, scientists say that a daytime snooze can bring a whole smorgasbord of mental and physiological benefits. Exactly how you benefit depends largely on which stage of sleep you wake from. A typical sleep cycle lasts around 90 – 110 minutes and has five stages* divided between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-REM) sleep:
Stage 1 (NREM 1): Lasts 5-10 minutes. very light sleep; but can produce intense and vivid sensations.
Stage 2 (NREM 2): Lasts for approximately 20 minutes. This is also a light sleep, but more rhythmic and relaxing for both body and mind. The brain starts sorting and storing away newly acquired memories.
Stage 3 (NREM 3): Variable, transitional period that links light and deep sleep. At this point the body starts making repairs to tired and damaged tissue.
Stage 4 (NREM 4): Lasts for about 30 minutes. This is deep sleep, and waking from this stage can leave us very groggy.
REM: Starts at around 90 minutes into the sleep cycle, and it variable in duration. This is when we dream. Waking from REM sleep allows for maximum relaxation as well as alertness.
(*The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) divides these into only 4 categories, combining NREM3 and 4 as a single stage known as slow wave sleep (SWS))
How long should you nap?
The research suggests that even a 10-20 minute nap duration can help us work faster and better. Slightly longer naps of 45-90 minutes can leave us groggy, but help with creative tasks since the brain starts making random connections between pieces of information.
A 90-odd minute nap includes a complete sleep cycle; and can help ward of drowsiness when it precedes a relatively boring task like driving or studying. Taking regular naps even helps to reduce the sleep debt that most of us carry around.
Napping for Success
In some parts of the world, napping culture has been embraced by the workplace. In Japan and Korea, employees are encouraged to take an afternoon nap to boost productivity. This trend has also been embraced by some of the largest tech companies in the world like Google and Uber.
For the ideal power nap, find a quite and comfortable place to help you nod off easily. Set an alarm to wake you; but accommodate 5-10 minutes to fall asleep, or you won’t get the benefits you were hoping for. If you want to wake up raring to go, a 20-25 minute nap preceded by a cup of coffee before it will do the trick. This is called a caffeine nap; combining the benefits of a short nap with the energy burst of a cup of coffee.
So here are our 10 science-backed reasons why you should be thinking about incorporating naps into your daily life.
1. Improves memory and learning
Taking a quick nap can boost the value of a study session. Even a 20-minute power nap can clear our mind, help consolidate already learnt information, and allow our brain to pick up new material faster and more effectively.
Even in the early stages of sleep, the brain starts to clear out adenosine – a chemical that gets created as we work and learn. This means that when we wake up, the brain is now able to collect more information, since it has additional free space. A slightly longer nap of 60 – 90 minutes has even more benefits; and mimics a good night’s rest that allows us to learn twice as fast.
2. Increases alertness
As we go through the day, we lose energy. Our brain starts to wander as a way to give us mini breaks from whatever we are doing. Usually this just means a dip in productivity; but at some jobs, this can spell disaster.
Research suggests that 20 – 40 minute naps can correct this problem; so that people who take a short nap are more alert, respond better and faster and make less mistakes. Brain scans show that people who take naps perform better at tasks because their brains function just as they would after night sleep.
3. Enhances mental health
When coupled with moderate exercise, regular afternoon naps can help enhance and maintain mental health; particularly in the elderly.
One study found that when elderly participants were encouraged to take a post-lunch nap followed by moderate activity in the evenings, they showed better overall mental health. They also had better physical health and reported better sleep quality for night sleep.
4. Improves cardiovascular health
Naps help in reducing our sleep debt; and thus carry a variety of health benefits. Short naps (30 minutes of less) in particular are found to be most beneficial, as they do not cause sleep inertia and other related health concerns.
A study found that people who get very little sleep each day have significantly higher risk for hypertension and heart problems. Naps help reduce fatigue, and thus allow our body to repair itself more effectively. Of course, this benefit of short naps is best achieved when paired with regular, moderate exercise.
5. Promotes creativity and productivity
When at a loss at trying to find a creative solution to a problem; try taking a nap. People experience rapid enhancements in creative thinking and problem solving after even a short period of sleep.
This may happen because the brain makes connections between different bits of information without our conscious thought reining it in. It may also be that the right hemisphere of the brain – the part associated with creative and lateral thinking – clears out the blocks in our thinking while we nap.
It also integrates our new experiences with older stored memories while we sleep; and this can lead to finding unexpected connections and innovative solutions. A 60 – 90 minute nap seems most efficient in enhancing creativity.
6. Reduces stress
Even a 10 minute nap can reduce stress and make us feel relaxed. A nap acts as a mini-vacation and resets our stress levels; so that we feel cared for and ready to tackle our next task. The best thing is that we can get this benefit even if we don’t actually fall asleep. Just the act of resting and focusing on ourselves for a few minutes is enough to lower stress.
7. Lifts your mood
Naps help us feel better and improve our mood. People who nap report higher feelings of well-being, improved mood and energy levels as compared to people who don’t get to take a nap. They also report lower levels of fatigue and feel less agitated as compared to before their naps. And we all know that happy workers are efficient workers!
8. Helps combat weight gain
It may seem counter – intuitive that sleeping can help control weight gain; but naps actually help our bodies stay fit. When we are sleep deprived, the body responds by increasing the production of the hormone grehlin which triggers a hunger response; and by reducing the production of leptin hormone, which helps us feel satiated.
Thus, we are more likely to eat when we haven’t slept. This also explains the desire to snack in the afternoon – something else that reduces when we take a nap. Thus, nappers are less likely to consume unnecessary calories.
9. Reduces the temptation to use alcohol and caffeine
Instead of reaching out for a cup of coffee or tea to combat afternoon drowsiness; take a quick nap instead. The research suggests that people who are sleep deprived are more likely to consume (and even abuse) caffeine as compared to someone who’s feeling fresh.
Sleep deprivation has also been linked to increased alcohol consumption, perhaps as a way of boosting energy in social situations. Naps help in feeling fresh and energized, reducing our dependence on these drinks.
10. Helps you look younger
Tired looking skin? Let it rest! Taking regular naps reduces the impact of fatigue on the skin – by reducing the fatigue. Even short naps allow our body to start it’s job of repairing old and tired cells; leaving us looking as fresh as ever. Of course, the improved energy levels after a nap only add to looking happy, relaxed and young!
Gauri Sarda-Joshi is a professional writer, educator, and Social Psychologist. Gauri has completed her post-graduation from the Department of Applied Psychology at the University of Mumbai, India; and is currently planning her PhD. Her work-related passions include Research Methodology and applications of Social Psychological Theory.