For years, naps have gotten a bad rap, derided as a sign of laziness, weakness, or senility. But lately napping has garnered new respect, thanks to solid scientific evidence that midday dozing benefits both mental acuity and overall health. A slew of new studies have shown that naps boost alertness, creativity, mood, and productivity in the later hours of the day.
A nap of 60 minutes improves alertness for up to 10 hours. Research on pilots show that a 26-minute “NASA” nap in flight enhanced performance by 34 percent and overall alertness by 54 percent. A Harvard study published in 2008 showed that a 45 minute nap improves learning and memory. The body benefits too. Napping reduces stress and lowers the risk of heart attack and stroke, diabetes, and excessive weight gain. Naps make you smarter, healthier, and safer. But to understand how you can nap best — when, for how long, to what end — you need to understand your body.
Most mammals sleep for short periods throughout the day. Us humans, however, have consolidated sleep into one long period, but the biological vestige remains. Our bodies are programmed for two periods of intense sleepiness: in the early morning, from about 2 to 4 a.m., and in the afternoon, between 1 and 3 p.m. This midday wave of drowsiness is not due to heat or too many fries at lunch (it occurs even if we skip eating). Rather, it arises from an afternoon quiescent phase in our physiology, which diminishes our reaction time, memory, coordination, mood, and alertness.
What’s in a Nap?
There are five stages that occur during sleep.
1. Falling asleep, 2. Light sleep, 3 and 4. Deep, slow-wave sleep, 5. REM (Rapid Eye Movement, dreaming stage)
A short afternoon catnap of 20 minutes yields mostly stage 2 sleep, which enhances alertness and concentration, elevates mood, and sharpens motor skills. Sufficient amount of nap is at least 90 minutes. Many of us get about an hour to an hour and a half less sleep per night than we need. A new study shows that the sleep deprived brain toggles between normal activity and complete lapses, or failures, a dangerous state of slowed responses and foggy inattention. Naps of 90 to 120 minutes comprise all stages, including REM and deep slow-wave sleep, which helps clear your mind, improve memory recall, and recoup lost sleep.
Once nap time and length are settled, you need some preparations for the rest. Find a safe, quiet, comfortable place, preferably one where you can lie down (it takes about 50 percent longer to fall asleep sitting upright). Darken the room or use eye shades. Calm your body by breathing slowly and deeply. Concentrate on relaxing your muscles one group at a time. If noise is an issue, put in earplugs or turn on some white noise. Quiet your mind by repeating a mantra, taking a mental walk at a relaxing place like the beach, or counting sheep or floating z’s.
If you want to be your best all day long, plan on napping.