Should you nap?

Napping is a quick and easy way to boost your alertness, creativity, and mood

Man resting at workplaceThirty per cent of adults take a nap on any typical day. That’s not surprising considering 70 per cent of adults are sleep-deprived. Furthermore, since most of us have trouble sleeping at least a few nights each week, there’s also a correlation between nap-taking and nocturnal insomnia because napping becomes a form of compensatory sleeping.

Napping can be healthy. Research in Greece showed that napping lowers the risk of heart attack and stroke, while other studies have yielded similar findings for obesity and diabetes. Napping benefits the mind, too—enhancing creative thinking, boosting cognitive processing, improving memory recall, and clearing the cobwebs.

Even a few minutes of napping helps

Most napaphobes assume there’s no way they can relax, doze off and get any amount of sleep in just twenty minutes. But remember that a nap is not the same type of sleep you get at night. It’s something different, and it must be approached as such.

Think of it this way: Your body is hungry for sleep, but you can’t give it a full-course meal during the day. You can, however, serve up a pretty tasty snack—one that replenishes its energy store, takes the edge off its appetite, and allows it to continue functioning without distraction. Viewed this way, it’s easier to see how even a 20-minute nap can satisfy the body.

For the sleep-deprived, naps that are long enough to include some REM sleep have the ability to increase motor skill performance by 16 per cent.

Is a nap right for me?

If you’re one of the lucky few who gets adequate sleep every night, you may not need [or be able] to nap. However, for the rest of us, life happens. When sleep is curtailed at night, a nap can be a stop-gap measure to get through the day. Naps can also be part of a well-rested person’s normal routine, serving as a natural, mid-day pick-me-up.

Our bodies are programmed with a biphasic sleep pattern, which means they cycle through two periods of drowsiness every 24 hours. One is between 2 – 4pm, and the other is in the late evening before bed.

The corporate world’s answer to the mid-afternoon energy dip has traditionally been a coffee or a cola break. However, these caffeinated quick fixes often interfere with the night-time sleep cycle. A better remedy, when possible, is to get a short nap.

In Greece, southern Italy, and throughout Latin America, the siesta is used to counteract this dip and escape the hottest part of the day. Yet even in Spain, only 7 per cent of the population naps. Unlike every other mammal on the planet, we increasingly fight the urge because we’re too busy, too stubborn, or too ashamed to admit that we need rest. But it’s time we tuck that thinking away.

How long should I nap?

In theory, you have two options. Depending on how much time you have, a nap of 20 or 90 minutes will leave you feeling refreshed. Why these specific times? While sleeping, your body progresses through five distinct sleep cycles ranging from light [stages 1 and 2] through delta or slow-wave sleep [stages 3 and 4] to REM, the deepest of all [stage 5]. A successful nap is one that either takes you through just the first two stages [generally 20 minutes] or one that goes through one complete sleep cycle and awakens you during stage 2 of the next cycle [usually about 90 minutes].

The key is to wake up during a lighter sleep stage in order to feel rejuvenated. Otherwise, you’ll feel more groggy than before. That’s why a one hour nap is usually not a good idea.

Won’t napping make it harder for me to fall asleep at night?

Only if you break the rules we just outlined and wake up four hours later in a pool of drool. Be careful, however, if you have a history of insomnia. If so, napping may not be a good idea. Experiment with a 20-minute nap first to see if it has any effect. Some insomniacs actually find that napping reduces their sleep anxiety and allows them to doze off more easily at night. Incidentally, people who skip naps don’t sleep any better or longer at night than those who do nap.

Does napping help make up for lost sleep?

Yes, but it should be considered an alternative—not an antidote—for bad sleep habits. While it’s nourishing and even luxurious to nap, there are many times when we can’t turn off the world for even 20 minutes. That’s why consistent, night-time sleep is so important and the reason it should be your priority.

I tried, but I just can’t nap…

Nobel Prize winners, presidents, distinguished scientists, and athletes all nap: John Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Lance Armstrong—there’s no reason you can’t, too. If you’re having trouble napping, you might be too caffeinated, there may be too much light or noise in the room, or you may harbour subconscious fears of getting caught. Or, more positively, you may be sufficiently rested and not need a nap.

Close the door, turn down the lights, and put in some earplugs. If you don’t have the luxury of privacy, consider a bathroom stall, your car, a corporate nap room [if you’re so lucky]. Whenever you nap, you should set a small alarm in order to wake up at the prescribed time.

Most important, try to forget about the to-do list in your head. Write everything down if it’ll help clear it, and tell yourself that although you may feel overwhelmed now, when you wake up you’ll be better prepared to start crossing things off.

What ingredients are necessary for a perfect nap?

Time: If you don’t make time to nap, you won’t have time to nap. Don’t blame your lifestyle, job, or the number of hours in the day. If you have time to run to the coffee shop for a latte, you have time to nap. Just as with anything else, it’s a matter of prioritising.

Clear mind: Sweep your head of ‘nap blockers.’ Put your cell phone on silent, set an alarm that you can trust, and put your computer into sleep mode. If you have to, make a list of things you need to handle as soon as you wake up.

Darkness: Do everything you can to block the light in your napping place, or simply use an eye mask.

Quiet: Noise, unless it’s white noise, will ruin your chances of taking a quality nap. Use earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones; turn on a fan, an air conditioner, or something else that generates ambient noise.

Comfort: You may not be able to get into your PJs and hop into bed, but get as close [and as comfortable] to that scenario as you can. Lie down. Otherwise, use a mat or just sit back in your chair. Support your head and limbs so you won’t jerk yourself awake once you get past Stage 1 sleep [which lasts two to five minutes]. Your body associates certain positions with sleep, so anything you can do to trick it into thinking it’s bedtime will help.

Cool temperature: Sleep researchers recommend a chilly 18 – 20 degrees Celsius for optimal night-time sleeping. This is because good nocturnal sleep is triggered by low body temperature. Naps, however, usually occur at a time of the day when our core body temperature is at its highest, so try to cool down a bit. You should be comfortable—not too hot or too cold.

Guiltlessness: Feel safe. Feel peaceful. Feel entitled to take this small amount of time for yourself.

Adapted from the book Sleep for Success by James Maas and Rebecca Robbins

This was first published in the July 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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James Maas
James B. Maas, Ph.D. is Weiss Presidential Fellow and Professor of Psychology at Cornell University. He is co-founder and CEO of the consulting firm, Sleep for Success, which designs programs for enhancing sleep quality and daytime performance.
Haley A Davis
Haley A Davis is a staff member of Sleep for Success, research assistant, and student at Cornell University.

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