The Benefits of Napping
It’s 3:30 p.m. on a Tuesday and my eyelids feel like they’ve got weights attached to them. At this moment, nothing sounds better than curling up under my desk George Costanza-style and taking a twenty-minute power nap, but unfortunately, that’s looked down on in the American workplace.
Naps get a bad rap in the on-the-go, frenzied pace of what’s considered a successful and productive life in this country. Yet countless studies have proven that napping has restorative benefits and results in increased effectiveness, happiness, and general health. I think we had it right all those years ago when we were forced to take afternoon “rest time” in preschool and kindergarten. So it’s with science on my side that I make this impassioned plea—bring back the nap!
Naps can and should be stimulating. The trick to beneficial napping seems to be finding the perfect amount of time. For a quick rest, anything under thirty minutes is preferred, whereas longer naps—those that allow for one complete sleep cycle, about ninety minutes—are better when we’re lacking sleep. Anything in between runs the risk of entering and disrupting the deep-sleep phase, which is what causes sleep inertia (feeling grumpy and disoriented). Shorter naps are just easier to fit into our schedules than longer ones, which is probably why we hear about the merits of short naps more than those of longer ones. Trying to explain an hour and a half spent snoozing in your car is a lot harder to explain to the boss than a fifteen-minute break.
Our bodies are programmed for midday sleep. The lethargy that seems to hit most people around the middle of the day is actually a natural result of our body’s circadian rhythms. At night, our body temperature drops slightly and prompts sleep. About eight hours after we wake up from our nighttime rest, temperatures drop again and we instinctively start craving a nap. It has little to do with how we sleep the night before or how big of a lunch we have, though battling insomnia or opting for a noon-time burrito will certainly intensify the sluggishness.
Trying to get more sleep at night or hitting up Starbucks won’t shake the afternoon slump either—a 2008 study published in the Journal of Sleep Research found that a short nap (under thirty minutes) refreshes people more than caffeine or sleeping longer the night before.
The smartest people take them. It’s no coincidence that geniuses like Thomas Edison and Leonardo DaVinci were proponents of naps. Numerous studies have shown that taking a fifteen- to thirty-minute rest period makes for smarter, more capable individuals. In 1999, researchers at Hiroshima University concluded that short naps (under thirty minutes) boosted performance levels at various tasks.
At least one study has found that longer naps involving REM sleep (the deep-sleep cycle that comes after an hour of sleeping) improve cognitive performance as well. A 2009 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences involved seventy-seven participants doing word-association tests. They were given the test in the morning and then again in the evening, either with no nap, a nap without REM sleep, or a ninety-minute nap in-between. Those who experienced REM sleep did almost 40 percent better on the second test than they did on the first, suggesting that REM sleep improves problem-solving skills. However, even those who napped without falling into the deep-sleep phase had better results as well, so even a little sleep is better than none.
Resting prevents information overload. With so much to remember and so many tasks to complete throughout the day, is it any wonder our brains get tired and call “uncle”? Napping is necessary to process all of the information we’re bombarded with so that our brains don’t get overwhelmed. In a 2002 study found in Nature Neuroscience, researchers had volunteers work on visual tests four times a day. The scores lowered as the day went on, except in those who were told to take a nap after the second session—their scores remained steady. People whose naps were an hour long actually brought their scores back to the first session’s numbers.
They’re good for our emotional and physical well-being. In the right conditions and circumstances—namely, in a comfortable spot and the perfect amount of time—an afternoon rest can promote a more positive outlook. In 2009, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley showed that nappers who experienced REM sleep responded more to pictures of happy faces than their peers who didn’t nap at all. The sleepless set tended to react more to pictures showing angry or scared facial expressions.
Naps can make our hearts happier, too. Doctors at the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Athens Medical School followed a large population of Greek adults over a six-year period and came forth with the results in 2007. They found that those who napped had a significantly lower risk of heart disease, with habitual nappers boasting 37 percent less of a chance and sometimes-nappers 12 percent.
Naysayers just aren’t doing it right. Some people claim that naps automatically cause sleep inertia or negatively affect nighttime sleep, but it could be that they’re sleeping somewhere between the recommended fifteen to thirty minutes or ninety-minute periods. Or it’s possible that they’re already sleep-deprived, which makes it harder to bounce back immediately after waking from a nap. Napping later in the day can make it harder to fall asleep later at night, so aim for a midday snooze instead.
While most research has found that napping is generally beneficial to the body, it’s worth noting that one study had opposite results: research published in a 2000 edition of the International Journal of Epidemiology suggested that napping increases the risk of heart disease by almost 50 percent. However, when explaining the results later, researchers did say that a difference in lifestyles (people in Costa Rica as opposed to Greece, for example) could account for the results.
Winston Churchill once said, “Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That’s a foolish notion held by people who have no imaginations.” Well said, Winston. With so many advantages to be had by napping, it’s downright silly that our country holds value in a lack of sleep. But until America gets on the bandwagon and extends acceptance of naptime beyond childhood, I’ll just have to continue longing for a society that embraces siestas and pour another cup of black tea.