Science Says Siestas Make Us Smarter. How To Nap Your Way To Success

May 14, 2020

Modern society has consistently looked down its nose at nappers, labeling them as weak and lazy. Work yourself to the point of exhaustion, they say! Consider surviving solely on caffeinated beverages, they say! No, says I. We’ve had it oh, so wrong, equating the number of hours behind the desk with productivity. It’s archaic, outdated, and quite frankly ridiculous that with the growing pool of evidence suggesting the contrary that businesses still operate this way. It’s about working smarter, not harder. And keeping your brain functioning in tiptop condition. Of the key players that orchestrate this, sleep is one of the most important.

We’ve discussed sleep in multiple different capacities here on Peaceful Dumpling, including how it’s affected by air pollution, sugar and even the current coronavirus pandemic. We’ve highlighted the importance of chronotherapy, or biohacking your way to better health, by being more observant of the times at which you engage in your daily activities (hint: it matters!). But one thing we’ve not discussed in much detail are the benefits of napping and how you can optimize yours. The body of research suggesting that afternoon naps are the way forward for many of us continues to excite me (uh, yesplease snooze in the sun). And a recent study proved just how glaringly obvious a choice it is for anyone wanting to nail a productive work session.

Sleep does many things to ensure our well-being. One of these is the making of memories. During sleep, synchronized brain waves send information temporarily stored in the hippocampus to long-term storage in the cortex. This then frees up the hippocampus to absorb new material. It’s rather like a computer that can only do so much with limited storage capacity. In the same way that you need to routinely clear out some of the files to speed up your laptop a bit, sleep helps your brain do some sorting so it can operate more efficiently.

This 2018 study outlined the importance of daytime napping in early memory formation during childhood. However, fastforward some years and the same still applies in adulthood. Healthy, young adults given a 90-minute nap opportunity in the afternoon showed marked improvement in word retention following a simple challenge. Sleep spindles, or those aforementioned brain waves that occur during sleep, are thought to be responsible. This study was also the first to prove better memory following a nap in individuals who obtained a normal night’s sleep. Typically these studies are done in sleep-deprived populations, to demonstrate how naps can be utilized to compensate for lost sleep, but here we see naps serving as a kind of “superbooster” for already healthy individuals.

Approximately half of the US population avoids napping due to reports of grogginess, feeling unproductive or simply not seeing any personal benefits in doing so. Interestingly, it has been shown that those who don’t typically nap during the day tend to fall into deep, slow-wave sleep when they occasionally indulge. Emerging from this results in sleep inertia, or a period of essentially still feeling half-asleep, making it difficult to jump into the next task. By comparison, those who nap regularly spend this time in lighter stage 1 and 2 sleep, which is easier to emerge from upon waking.

But what if you can’t nap? Is it simply that you haven’t given it a proper chance, or that you’re doing something wrong? The science says otherwise. A crossover study took non-nappers and tried to encourage them to cultivate a napping habit by making them practice for 4 weeks. Alongside this, the investigators took a group of regular nappers and nap-restricted them for 4 weeks. Four weeks was not enough to get non-nappers to develop a regular napping habit, indicating that more time might be required. Or simply, those that fall into the non-napping category are somehow programmed differently. In this study, it was found that nappers always improved learning after having a nap, while results for non-nappers were not significantly different after a nap.

So, if you are a napper, fight for your right to snooze by telling anyone who criticizes you that REM sleep aids creative problem-solving and a brief half-hour nap from 1-1:30 p.m. in sleep-deprived athletes was found to lower heart rate and improve alertness, as well as aspects of physical and mental performance. And if you’ve tried everything and you still can’t nap, fear not; it has been shown that not everyone necessarily improves learning from daytime sleep and you might simply be one of those folks! That’s a-okay.

If you know you’re a napper, but want to streamline the process, here are some top tips to follow:

1. Keep it brief. The literature shows that about half an hour will suffice, although you can allow up to 90 minutes. Everyone exhibits unique sleep architecture while they snooze, so experiment with length and see what allows you to wake feeling rejuvenated—not groggy. It might take a little experimentation. Napping longer than 90 minutes has been found to be associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity. So, do yourself a favor and remember: short and sweet.

2. Remember the circadian dip. There’s a reason that it’s normal to feel sleepy after lunch! Our bodies are naturally inclined to take a nap at this time, so take advantage of your body clock and aim for a lie-down between 2-3 p.m. Any later and you run the risk of disrupting your regularly scheduled bedtime. Obviously, though, this will vary if you’re a particularly early-riser or night-owl, so adjust accordingly.

3. Get an eye mask & ear plugs. These might be regular accoutrements for you at night anyway, depending on where you live and how sensitive you are, but certainly in the daytime, there’s much more activity around that might make it tricky to fall asleep. Help yourself along by making it dark and dampening the sound. You might even want to introduce black-out curtains to your bedroom if you struggle with the light pollution where you are.

4. Take a shower beforehand. There’s nothing like a shower or bath to relax you and induce sleep by lowering core body temperature. And if you don’t have time for a full hose-down, try even washing just your feet and giving them a little rub. Throw some lavender oil into the mix and you’re onto a winner.

Are you a napper? What are your top tips?


Photo: Dan Gold on Unsplash
Kat Kennedy is an Arizona-based physiology doctoral student and holistic health advocate writing about science, health, and her experiences as a third culture kid and global nomad. She's @sphynxkennedy everywhere.


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