Categories: Sleep Science

The Science of Napping: Health, Wellness, and Better Performance

Ah, naps. There’s nothing more enjoyable than a mid-afternoon slumber when you’re feeling tired and run-down. I used to hate naps. They left me feeling groggy and out-of-touch, sapping my energy for the rest of the day. I was really suffering with mid-afternoon fatigue but I thought a nap would make it worse. I tried to wake up with coffee but it turns out pumping myself full of caffeine does more harm than good. I’d end up feeling jittery, sick to my stomach, and anxious. My mood suffered too. As 3 o’clock rolled around, I’d be snapping at co-workers and tearing up with irate customers. It was an unsustainable cycle. I decided to revisit napping one afternoon in the dead of winter. It was getting dark around 4 and I just couldn’t keep my eyes open for another second. So, I snuck out to my car, reclined the seat, and slept for about 25 minutes. I woke up feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to tackle the evening’s tasks. It was a real eye-opener. Literally. It turns out napping is really good for you. It helps with mood, alertness, memory, and overall health! Who knew? This is especially good news for retirees and new moms, two major napping demographics.

Don’t Let Yourself Sleep for Too Long

I didn’t know it at the time, but the reason I was always so groggy was that I was letting myself enter a deep sleep. My hour and a half naps were bringing me right to the middle of my sleep cycle. Waking up then is like slogging through molasses. Not so fun. Instead, I now sleep for an hour or less. This takes me through the first and second stages of sleep, but keeps me from entering the third. This timing is slightly different for everyone, so it’s important to experiment with napping, to find the perfect formula for your brain.

The Findings

Sleep studies from the last few years have shown that short naps (up to an hour) vastly improve the brain’s ability to learn. According to Matthew Walker, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley: “Sleep not only rights the wrong of prolonged wakefulness but, at a neurocognitive level, it moves you beyond where you were before you took a nap.” Naps actually make you smarter!

In their sleep studies with astronauts, NASA scientists have found that naps improve working memory, which “involves focusing attention on one task while holding other tasks in memory. [It’s] a fundamental ability critical to performing complex work.”

Achieving the Perfect Nap

It’s important to give yourself good napping conditions, whenever possible. This means lying down (preferably on your comfortable home mattress), darkening the room, and using a blanket. Be careful not to use too many blankets though. Being excessively warm can add to grogginess, making it more difficult to wake up.

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