According to the National Sleep Foundation, more than 85% of mammalian species sleep for short periods during the day.
That makes us humans a part of the minority.
But are we really? After all, napping is incredibly common throughout the world, particularly in certain cultures and at certain stages of our life cycle.
I used to rarely take naps. Once I was up, I was up for the day.
But since coming to Israel, I’ve started to take naps a couple of times per week…and man, was I missing out!
I should have realized this earlier. My roommate from my freshman and sophomore years in college was a habitual napper.
Well, Jeremy, it looks like science is on your side on this issue, because napping has been proven to have some awesome benefits.
Awesome Benefits Of Napping
If you are like my old roommate, chances are you already are familiar with a few of these benefits. But even for you seasoned nappers out there, you may be surprised at just how powerful a power nap can be.
Awesome Benefit #1: Napping Helps Relieve Stress
You probably have a very busy lifestyle.
Good for you! But unfortunately, all the hustle and bustle of your daily life can be rather stressful.
The simple act of taking a break and laying down for a few minutes can do wonders for managing your stress levels. Heck, you don’t even need to take a real nap to get some of this benefit.
But personally, I’m much more likely to give myself “permission” to take a break if I at least call it a nap.
A two hour nap after a night of sleep deprivation was found to reduce the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in healthy volunteers1. In addition, a 30-minute nap was found to decrease self-reported stress levels in college students2.
If you aren’t into meditation, yoga, or tai chi, you should consider napping as an effective tool for stress reduction.
Awesome Benefit #2: Improve Cardiovascular Health
I’ll bet you didn’t know that taking naps might help you live longer!
In fact, a large cohort study on healthy individuals in Greece found that those who took frequent naps were a full 37% less likely to die of coronary heart disease during the six year follow up3! Even occasional nappers came out ahead, with a 12% reduced risk of coronary mortality. Very nice!
If you do some research on napping and cardiovascular health, you will notice conflicting results. Other studies have in fact come to the opposite conclusion.
Those studies did not adequately control for confounding variables such as exercise, and they tended to be done on elderly individuals. Of course, elderly individuals are likely to have some related health problem that caused increased napping, making the results less valid.
The most convincing evidence we have so far is that taking regular naps is good for your heart, so you should feel good about your siestas!
Awesome Benefit #3: Helps Your Immune System
Are you sick of getting sick? Maybe a nap can help.
When you are sleep deprived, your immune system weakens. A 30-minute nap followed by a regular 8 hour night of sleep was found to improve markers of immune function, whereas only getting the night of sleep did not allow immune function to return to normal4.
The takeaway here is that if you didn’t get enough sleep last night, don’t wait until tonight to sleep. Go ahead and take a nap now, and you will be less likely to get sick tomorrow.
Awesome Benefit #4: Improves Memory And Learning
If you are debating between studying for a bit longer or taking a nap, you might end up doing better on your exam if you nap!
Most people know that a good night of sleep helps them remember things they learned the previous day. It turns out that napping during the day has the same effect.
Declarative memory, or the memory of fact-based information, is improved after a short nap of less than one hour5. So if you just need to remember random facts, a daytime nap can help.
Even more impressive, declarative memory was found to be improved with as little as six minutes of sleeping6!
But what about learning actual skills?
A nap including REM sleep was shown to be just as effective as a full night of sleep for learning7. To top it off, this effect was additive, so a night of sleep plus a nap was as effective for learning as a full two nights of sleep.
Awesome Benefit #5: Improved Performance And Alertness
If you feel tired during the day, you probably won’t perform as well at work.
Luckily, a short nap can remedy that problem. A study by NASA found that a 40 minute rest period (average of 25 minutes of sleep) doubled levels of alertness and improved task performance8.
If you have to be at the top of your game, a 25-minute nap will do the trick.
Awesome Benefit #6: Improved Mood
If you’ve been following this blog for some time (or if you can read the URL ), you know that I’m always on the lookout for ways to boost mood. Napping is one of the easiest ways to do it.
For both habitual nappers and non-nappers, an hour long nap significantly improved mood9. In this study, it was found that sleep was not essential to this mood boost, so even if you are afraid you won’t be able to drift off, you can still benefit.
Another study found that a 20-minute nap made people feel more self-confident in their performance of tasks10. Perhaps a nap will make you more confident before your next date?
Awesome Benefit #7: …And More!
There are benefits to napping that are very difficult to study empirically, but are none the less real.
Scientists believe that your brain makes new nerve connections during REM sleep. So if you need some creative problem solving skills, a 90-minute nap that goes through a full sleep cycle might just help you see the problem in a new light.
Many achievements in science and the arts were dreamt up (literally), including the song “Yesterday” by The Beatles, Frankenstein, and the idea of chemical transmission of nervous impulses in the brain.
A nap may also improve your motivation. If you are struggling to bring yourself to do something, a short nap can make it easier. If you are feeling sluggish, a 20-minute nap might just give you the energy to go exercise like you had wanted.
What’s In A Nap?
A nap is a nap is a nap, right?
Not all naps are created equal. In fact, there are many factors that influence the effect that taking a nap will have on you. A recent literature review on napping takes a look at these factors, and I will summarize the relevant findings here.
This information will help you decide how you want to incorporate napping into your lifestyle strategically so you can reap the oh so sweet rewards.
Time Of Day
Our circadian rhythm is the natural fluctuation in various biological functions that takes place over a 24-hour period.
There is a natural dip in alertness that happens in the afternoon between 3:00-5:00 PM. This time is different for everyone, depending on whether you are a night owl or early bird. You probably have some idea of your own natural dip.
During these hours, you fall asleep faster, have more “efficient” sleep, and experience more “slow wave sleep”, or deep sleep.
If you are sleep deprived, this can be a good thing. On the other hand, after waking up from a nap during this time, you are likely to experience more sleep inertia, or drowsiness after waking up.
Napping later in the day may interfere with your ability to fall asleep that night, so be mindful of this as well.
Duration Of Nap
If you’ve read this far, you probably already realize that how long you nap for has a huge effect on the benefit you derive from it.
This is a very complex issue, because there are many possible nap lengths coinciding with varying stages of sleep, and there are many different types of benefits that napping can provide.
Some lengths will confer some benefits but not others, so the ideal duration of your nap is a function of what benefit you want to receive.
A five minute nap will, unfortunately, not result in any significant improvements in cognitive performance or alertness. But if you remember Awesome Benefit #4, improvements in memory can be had in as little as six minutes of sleep.
Naps that are 10, 20, or 30-minutes long all improve cognitive performance and alertness to a similar degree. However, 10-minute naps have immediate benefit, while the benefits of 20 and 30-minute naps are delayed . This suggests that the traditional “power nap” should only last for 10-minutes.
Then there are longer naps. If you nap for 30-minutes or longer, you will likely experience sleep inertia upon waking. This is probably related to waking up during deeper, slow wave sleep.
On the other hand, there are additional benefits to taking longer naps. If you are sleep deprived, a longer nap will help you catch up and will reduce sleepiness more than a short nap would.
Plus, you need REM sleep to experience improved learning and creativity, and it can take between 70 and 90-minutes to fall into REM sleep.
The effects of napping are slightly different for elderly adults than young and middle-aged adults.
Similarly, there could be differences in people who nap habitually and those who don’t usually nap.
Unfortunately, not much research has been done to determine the effects of these factors. Rest assured (pun intended), we will know more about these factors in the coming years.
Make Your Next Nap Even More Awesome
I’ve just shoved a lot of information down your throat, and it can be hard to digest it all at once.
Gross imagery right there.
Anyways, let’s take all that scientific mumbo-jumbo and use it to help you strategically design your naps for the most benefit.
Know Why You Are Napping
If you just nap for the hell of it, you could very well be wasting your time.
Instead, you should always have a goal in mind before you nap. This need not be anything complicated.
Some possible goals might be to:
- Catch up on sleep after a night of sleep deprivation
- Recharge your batteries so you can perform at your peak for work
- Prepare for a night shift
- Help you remember the things you have studied for an exam
- Calm down
- Get a creative boost
Depending on what you want to achieve, you would nap in a different way.
I have a couple of additional suggestions for you.
- Consider waking up an extra 20-30 minutes earlier than you normally would in order to establish a productive morning routine. Take a power nap in the afternoon when you might not be very productive in order to recharge. This way, you can take advantage of the lack of distractions in the morning to get things done or make progress towards a goal.
- Take a “caffeine nap”. After consuming caffeine, it takes time before the effects are felt. Try downing a cup of coffee and then taking a 15 or 20 minute nap. When you wake up, you will feel more alert than you would have with either caffeine or a nap alone.
- On the other hand, perhaps you are trying to quit caffeine. In that case, consider taking a 20 minute power nap instead of drinking a cup of coffee like you normally would.
How To Fall Asleep Quickly
Not everyone passes out as soon as their head hits the pillow.
It’s even more challenging during the day.
To help you fall asleep as quickly as possible and get the most out of your nap, here are five pieces of sound advice:
- Don’t eat sugary foods before a nap. Besides the fact that sugar is terrible for your health, it will also make it harder for you to fall asleep. Try to avoid consuming sugar for at least two hours before you intend to nap.
- Have a dark place to lie down. It’s much easier to fall asleep while laying down than while sitting. Your nap is probably going to be during daylight, so find a dark place to sleep or wear one of those eye mask things. Sure you’ll look kind of funny, but you’ll get the last laugh when you’ve gotten a fantastic nap in.
- Eliminate distractions. For some reason, whenever you want to take a nap it just seems like everybody wants a piece of you. Lock your door or put up a sign. Make sure your phone is on silent. Commit to the nap, and don’t let other people distract you.
- Listen to some white noise. When you want to take a nap, everyone else will be awake. That means there will be more sounds from the outside. A little bit of white noise can help drown those sounds out and lull you to sleep faster.
- Wash your face and go outside after you wake up. If you experience sleep inertia, you won’t feel on top of your game. Exposure to bright lights and cold water on your face are two ways to make yourself more alert.
When I started researching this article, I had no idea there was so much complexity to napping.
From now on, I’m going to incorporate regular 10 minute power naps into my day.
The benefits of napping are many. Armed with the knowledge of these benefits and the factors that affect napping, you can now take strategic naps to fulfill whatever need you may desire!
Do you have any advice on how to take a killer nap? Let me know.