Napping is not something we often do even though most of us would love a little lie down partway through the day! But what seems like a waste of time or an indulgence could actually be exactly what we need to be more productive and alert than ever.
It’s a practice which is not frowned upon in many cultures where the benefits are more fully appreciated – in fact in Japanese there is even a word for it ‘inemuri’ which translates as ‘sleeping while present’. And the siestas of southern Europe are still part of daily life. It’s likely that our ancestors slept in this manner rather than breaking 24 hrs in two sections like we do now. “It’s only since the industrial revolution we have been obsessed with squeezing all our sleep into the night rather than having one or two sleeps through the day,” says Vincent Walsh, professor of human brain research at University College London. Humans are among the few animals that take their sleep in one shot with most sleeping and waking more than once a day.
If you feel like you can’t think straight or your brain is on a go-slow then a nap could be exactly what you need. Scientists have found that a 60 minute nap can charge up the brain’s batteries as much as eight hours in bed. Which could be why so many famous leaders and CEOs who only sleep for 4—5 hours a night do make space in their schedule for a middle of the day nap. A study published in Nature Neuroscience looked at the performance of subjects during four tests during the day. They discovered those who took a 30-minute nap between tests stopped any deterioration in performance, and those who took a 60-minute nap even reversed it. “Naps had the same magnitude of benefits as full nights of sleep if they had a specific quality of nap,” said professor of psychology and study author Dr Sara Mednick.
A NASA study on pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34% and alertness 100%. And pilots who were allowed to take a 25 minute nap during the flight nodded off five times less than those who stayed awake throughout. They also made less mistakes during the flight and their take offs and landings were better.
But you don’t even need a full hour for the benefits Sara adds. “You can get incredible benefits from 15 to 20 minutes of napping. You reset the system and get a burst of alertness and increased motor performance,” she argues.
Taking a nap is a not just good for your brain, it also helps your heart too. In a study of 23,681 Greek men over six years, those who napped three times per week had a 37% lower risk of dying from heart disease. And of those who both worked and napped their risk of death was reduced 64%. Which makes sleeping on the job not just attractive but actually essential!
The way our memories work is a complex thing. We have to hold our thoughts while also working on a range of other tasks. This is why most experiences and information is passed into our long-term memory when we are sleeping, as our brains are not multitasking to such an extent. Recent memories are transferred to the neocortex, where long-term memories are solidified and stored. Breaking the day with a napping improves your memory retention as it gives your brain another chance to consolidate the information it has been fed that day.
Dr Sara Mednick, has discovered in her extensive research into sleep that taking a nap can improve your sensory perception as effectively as a night of sleep. This means we are more in tune to our senses, heightening our awareness of smell, taste and sound for example, after we have taken a nap. This combined with the way in which it improves creativity by loosening ideas in your head and fusing quite separate insights together, means taking a nap is a great help to anyone creating or think creatively about a problem.
When we are sleep deprived our body ends up with an excess of the hormone cortisol. This is a stress hormone which is linked to the fight or flight response. But if we have too much in our bodies it increases glucose intolerance and abdominal fat, weakens the muscular and immune systems, effects our memory and our learning abilities. It could also lead to the development of diabetes and heart disease as a result.
But when we sleep our bodies release hormones which are the antidote to cortisol. As a result levels are lowered along with stress and we receive a boost to our immune system, muscle repair and weight loss as our bodies are not panic storing fat. So if you are feeling stressed and tired a nap will give your body a chance to heal and reduce those anxiety levels.
“Our data suggests a 30-minute nap can reverse the hormonal impact of a night of poor sleep,” Brice Faraut of the Université Paris Descartes-Sorbonne Paris Cité, whose studied the effect napping has on hormones. “This is the first study that found napping could restore biomarkers of neuroendocrine and immune health to normal levels. Napping may offer a way to counter the damaging effects of sleep restriction by helping the immune and neuroendocrine systems to recover.”
To make the most of the stress-busting power of a nap it’s helpful to stick to a napping schedual at what scientists have found to be the perfect napping time – between 1:00pm and 3:00pm. This is when your blood sugar and energy levels typically dip following lunch.
If you find it hard to cope with pain then it could be a nap would help as much as a painkiller. When we are sleep deprived we are more sensitive to pain and discomfort. One study found missing just two hours of night time sleep can significantly reduce a person’s pain threshold. But the good news is it found that by taking a 30-minute nap a person can reset pain thresholds back to normal – especially if they take the nap in the morning.
For most of us tired = grumpy. It’s hard to see the positives when you feel exhausted and sleep deprivation leads to irritability But put the coffee down because napping is a natural way to revive your energy levels. It’s been proven that a 20 minute nap is more effective than either 200 mg of caffeine or a bout of exercise when it comes to perking you up and helping you face the rest of the day.