The Surprising Science Behind Napping

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Over the years, napping has gotten a bad rap, becoming a sign of laziness or weakness, especially during the workday. Yet, according to a growing body of scientific research, napping can actually be a very good and very smart thing to do. How so? Napping can help refresh the mind, make you more creative, boost your intelligence, and even help you live a longer, healthier life. Studies over the past decade have confirmed all of this and more, and napping is slowly gaining acceptance as a part of a healthy lifestyle, even in some corporate offices. Whether you’re ready to jump on the nap-happy bandwagon or just learn more about the research being done on the practice, read on as we share the science behind the need to nap, interesting research into napping, and a scientist-approved method for taking the ideal nap.

Why We Need Naps

In our modern hurried world, making time for even a short nap might seem like an impossible luxury. Yet, for some, they may be necessary to make it through the day at peak mental and physical performance. Our bodies crave naps for a reason, some based on our evolution, others on our habits.

  • Not getting enough sleep.

    The No. 1 reason many people need a nap? Not getting enough sleep at night. While there is no magic number of hours that people need to get at night (the ideal varies by age and other highly individual factors), the National Sleep Foundation suggests that adults get seven to nine hours. Unfortunately, a CDC study found that more than 40 million workers get less than six hours a night. That lack of sleep can have consequences, and if it happens often enough your body may start seeking out rest during the day, leaving you in dire need of a nap.

  • Poor nutrition.

    Another easily remedied reason for feeling sleepy throughout the day is based on nutrition. Many people feel tired in the afternoon because of plummeting blood sugar levels after a poorly planned lunch. This can be caused by two things: not eating enough at lunch to supply enough energy to get through to dinner, or by choosing foods that don’t contain enough protein and fiber and far too much of sugars and other carbohydrates. Either way, these kinds of lunches leave most feeling tired, sluggish, and worn out well before the work day is over.

  • Our bodies are programmed that way.

    It may be more common for people in the U.S. to only sleep at night, but that isn’t exactly the way our bodies are necessarily designed to work. Wakefulness throughout the day is governed by our natural biological clock, a phenomenon more commonly referred to as the circadian rhythm. While some may not feel sleepy until evening, others experience a small “hump” in sleepiness in the mid-afternoon that’s entirely normal and is actually programmed into the circadian schedule. As a result, the desire to nap is simply an expression of the natural rhythms of our bodies, regardless of whether we get enough sleep at night.

  • It’s an evolutionary necessity.

    As the day goes on, learning ability, alertness, and focus degrade. A nap can help counteract that effect and give those mental faculties a boost. While this might not be an absolute necessity for survival today, especially with the invention of caffeine-laden energy drinks, at one point in our evolutionary history it just might have been. Slowed reaction times and decreased watchfulness could have meant the difference between life and death for our ancestors (and can still have a marked effect on our own success today). A short nap, even just 15 to 20 minutes, can greatly increase the faculties that increase the odds of survival, so it’s only natural that we’re predisposed to want to sleep.

Studies on Napping

So now that you know why your body is so determined to nap, it’s time to learn what benefits there are to giving into that urge. There has been a tremendous amount of research done on the advantages of napping, and the results of just a few of those studies are shared here.

  • The benefits of napping apply even to the very young.

    Napping is good for you at any age, research suggests, and may even be essential for children who are still growing and developing. A University of Colorado Boulder study showed that toddlers between two and a half and three who missed a single daily nap showed more anxiety, less joy and interest, and a poorer understanding of how to solve problems. While children build up sleep pressure more quickly (the desire to need to sleep) due to highly active and connected brains, the same problems can be seen in adults who don’t get in a daily nap.

  • Sleeping on the job is a good thing.

    Some companies, Google and Apple included, are allowing employees to take naps on the job, and science proves that that’s probably a really great idea. Why? Studies show that power naps, short 10 to 15 minute naps, improve mental efficiency and productivity, which is a small investment in time for such a big payoff in company morale and production.

  • An afternoon nap markedly boosts the brain’s learning capacity.

    Whether you’re heading to class or just trying to learn a new skill, making sure you’re well-rested beforehand can make a big difference, research from Berkeley suggests. A study done at the school found that sleeping for an hour dramatically boosts and restores brain power, in turn making it easier to learn and retain new information. Sleep clears out our short-term memory, making room for new information and priming us to be better, more efficient learners.

  • Naps are more effective than caffeine.

    Thinking of pouring yourself a giant cup of coffee? Consider a nap instead, as research has shown that it can be a better way to wake yourself up. When researchers compared the effectiveness of getting more sleep at night to drinking a cup of coffee or taking a nap, the nap was the clear winner. Naps help to genuinely refresh your body and their impact can be much more long-lasting than that of caffeinated drinks.

  • Napping can boost your memory.

    One of the most universally beneficial effects of napping is its effect on memory. Research at Harvard Medical School found that napping, especially when accompanied by dreaming, was an effective tool for improving memory and learning ability. Even better, you may get the benefits even if your nap is interrupted. A 2008 study showed that the onset of sleep may trigger active memory processes that remain effective even if sleep is limited to only a few minutes.

  • Even a short nap can have a marked effect on your health.

    There are dozens of research studies that correlate napping with some pretty amazing health effects. A study of Greek adults found that napping at least three times a week for 30 minutes or more was associated with a 37% lower risk of death from heart disease. A British study suggests that just knowing a nap is coming is enough to lower blood pressure. Other benefits of napping include: reduced stress and a lower risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and excessive weight gain.

  • Naps make you more creative.

    Neuroscientists at the City University of New York found that taking a nap boosts a sophisticated type of memory that helps us see big picture ideas and be more creative. The study used a 90-minute nap, but researchers say even short naps (12 minutes or more) can have a positive effect on memory.

  • Want to boost performance? Take a nap.

    Whether you’re flying a plane or just typing in reports, a nap can make you better at doing it. Research on pilots at NASA showed that a 26-minute nap in flight (while a co-pilot was on duty) enhanced performance by 34% and overall alertness by 54%. With those kinds of results, it’s no coincidence that some of the world’s top athletes, world leaders, and brilliant minds have all been avowed nappers.

The Science of the Perfect Nap

If you’re ready to get into your own napping habit, here’s a research-based method for getting the most out of your time sleeping. These tips will help you maximize the benefits of napping, and may just have you making naps a part of your everyday schedule.

  • Watch the time.

    The most beneficial naps during the day according to sleep experts are relatively short. This is because short naps only allow individuals to enter the first two stages of sleep. Once you enter slow wave sleep, it’s much harder to wake up and you may be left feeling groggy for hours afterwards. Ideally, keep your naps under 20 minutes. Naps of this duration are short enough to fit into a workday but still give the benefits of improved mood, concentration, alertness, and motor skills. If you’ve got more time, a nap of 45 minutes can also have benefits, including boosts in sensory processing and creative thinking. If you go longer, aim for at least 90 minutes so you’ll work your way through all the stages of sleep and won’t wake up disoriented.

  • Find a quiet and dark place.

    Noise and light can disrupt your ability to sleep (though if you’re really tired neither may really faze you) so it’s best to limit them to get the most rest out of your nap. To limit distracting sounds, put in earplugs or listen to white noise. To cut out light, darken a room or employ an eyeshade.

  • Lie down.

    While it might be possible to fall asleep sitting up, it’ll take significantly more time; about 50% longer. It’s best to lie down so you’ll get to sleep quickly and make the most of your time.

  • Get in the napping zone.

    If you want to fall asleep quickly and actually enjoy the restful benefits of napping, you need to shut out the nagging voices in your head that are reminding you of all the things you need to get done. Meditation techniques are a great way to do that, researchers advise. Concentrate on your breathing, relax your muscles, and even use visualization techniques to take you somewhere calming.

  • Coordinate your caffeine.

    If you need a little extra boost besides your nap, you should coordinate the two. Caffeine takes about 20 to 30 minutes to take effect, so if you drink a cup of coffee before you nap, it’ll be kicking in just as you’re waking up. The practice is called a “caffeine nap” and studies at Loughborough University showed that the combination can actually leave individuals feeling more refreshed than just one or the other alone.

  • Plan to nap.

    Ideally, you want to take a nap before you get to the point that extreme sleepiness can become dangerous or uncomfortable. So, plan naps into your day so you’ll know one is on the horizon and you’ll never be left feeling incredibly out of it as you work, drive, or do other tasks.

  • Set an alarm.

    You don’t want to sleep longer than you intend, so always set an alarm to ensure that you wake up within the time frame you set for yourself and don’t drift into sleep cycles that could leave you drowsy.

  • Cut out the guilt.

    Science has shown time and time again that napping is not only natural, it’s extremely beneficial. Don’t guilt yourself out of a nap by focusing on what you need to get done or worrying what others might think. Instead, enjoy the nap and reap the benefits of improved productivity, energy, and mental capacity that it offers.

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