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Napping: Friend or Foe?

Are you tired all the time?

I try to keep an ear open to patterns in the things my patients, friends, and colleagues talk about. Often, I use them to plan my “Wellness Wednesday” articles. Lately, I’ve been hearing about people being tired. Actually, now that I think about it, I’ve been hearing about people being tired a little more every year for 25 years. There are a lot of reasons for this:

  • People work long hours – up late and up early.
  • People stay up late and watch TV or work on their computers or phones, then go directly to bed before their brains have had a chance to process the blue-light stimulation of their devices, so their brains fidget all night.
  • People are stressed out or worried about things they can’t control.
  • People drink sugary or caffeinated drinks late in the day, so they never settle down to good sleep.
  • People go to bed and rise at different times every day, so their bodies never set stable circadian rhythms.
  • People have food sensitivities that affect their endocrine systems, including the adrenal gland.
  • Sugar.

And the effects of sleep deprivation are serious. How many car crashes, train disasters, and workplace accidents have you heard about that were caused by sleep deprivation?

So, what can we do about it?

The Power of a Power Nap

There is some wisdom in napping. People might look at your funny or tell you you’re being lazy, but this is one area where I’d rather be safe and endure a little mocking.

The National Sleep Foundation has listed some important benefits to napping:

  • Naps can restore alertness, enhance performance, and reduce mistakes and accidents. A study at NASA on sleepy military pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34% and alertness 100%.

  • Naps can increase alertness in the period directly following the nap and may extend alertness a few hours later in the day.

  • Scheduled napping has also been prescribed for those who are affected by narcolepsy.

  • Napping has psychological benefits. A nap can be a pleasant luxury, a mini-vacation. It can provide an easy way to get some relaxation and rejuvenation.

I don’t usually nap unless I’m on vacation (and maybe I should incorporate it into my workday), but I have seen marked improvement for patients who can use power naps to straighten out their sleep cycles.

Power napping is a lost art since the Industrial Age. Your great-grandparents (and if you’re from some cultures, maybe your parents) enjoyed a quick nap after lunch, to reset for the rest of the workday. But the culture of the industrial/corporate world has long emphasized constant productivity over wellness.

It’s refreshing to see that some corporations have brought back the power nap, providing blocks of time – and in some cases, well-designed rooms – to promote nap times throughout the day. The research is out there, and the business world is beginning to take it seriously.

What’s the Best Length of a Nap?

Edison, Einstein, Churchill, and hosts of other historical figures were ardent nappers. They enjoyed the benefits of a quick recharge. In fact, Thomas Edison is said to have slept for two hours a night and punctuated his days with a series of quick naps.

As for exact lengths of ideal sleep, there are a couple of schools of thought about this. Conventional wisdom says that 7 to 8 hours of sleep is required every single night–and I tend to agree with that–but the research for a 90-minute sleep cycle is compelling.

Most mammals sleep in phases throughout the day and night. If you have a cat, you know what I’m talking about. Humans are one of the few species that dedicates longer blocks to sleeping each day. There are few things in life more frustrating than waking up suddenly in the middle of the night and feeling totally awake and refreshed but wanting to go back to sleep until morning. Then you take an hour or two trying to force yourself back to sleep and wake up feeling like someone parked a bus on top of you. I hate when that happens.

It could be that your body is letting you know that your sleep tank is filled. Sleep is a cycle, like digestion, with light stages and deep stages. Your neurologic systems shut down and reset through that sequence. When it’s done, your body is adequately charged, but if you interrupt it at any point, you feel like you’ve been run over.

How long is that cycle?

I’ve read some interesting military research on this. Rangers, SEALs, and other groups of soldiers train to leverage a 90-minute sleep cycle. Research on napping also indicates that 90-minute naps provide a complete reset cycle for the brain, with benefits including improved memory, emotional balance, and creativity. If you’ve got a long day ahead of you, and you can afford a 90-minute nap, the science is on your side.

For most of us, though, 90 minutes is a long time to set aside for a snooze.

The Golden Time For a Power Nap

From everything I’ve read, 20 minutes appears to be the ideal length for a power nap, usually resulting in a boost of energy and alertness. It gives your synapses an opportunity to flush out serotonin (the satisfied/sleepy neurotransmitter) from your system, improving muscle memory, stamina, and motor performance. Regular power nappers describe improved memory of facts, events, and details. Some claim they can get some of these benefits with a five-minute catnap, but the consensus seems to fall around 20 minutes.

By contrast, people who nap for 25 to 30 minutes often complain of feeling groggy or “heavy” for up to half an hour after waking. 

Groggy drivers are the most dangerous people on the road. If you’re planning to be on the road and you’re feeling sleepy, drinking a little coffee or tea, followed by a 20-minute power nap, has the benefit of resetting your energy levels for the next leg of the trip. A 30- to 60-minute nap typically has the opposite effect because your brain has moved into lower-level REM sleep phases, and interrupting that cycle is like being yanked up suddenly from under water.

Also, I don’t recommend drinking Coke or Monster or other similar energy drinks, for obvious reasons. The sugar might make you feel energetic for an hour or so, but once it wears off, the crash is worse than the high. Not to mention the damage to your liver, teeth, and immune system. Just don’t.

Consistency Helps

I’ve also seen a bunch of research on the compounding benefits of napping for people who do it consistently: the same nap at the same time every day. They haven’t stumbled upon something surprising; they tapped into the power of the Circadian Rhythms. Your body was designed to operate in consistent cycles and patterns. Going to bed and rising at the same time every single day is one of the best things you can do for your physical health, mental health, emotional health, and career health. Even at that, there is a best window of time to take a nap, and it’s the same time your Kindergarten teacher told you: between 1:00 and 3:00 in the afternoon. Lay down too early and your body won’t be ready to settle down; lay down too late and it may mess up your bedtime.

Building consistent patterns in your life promotes good health.

So now, I’m thinking about laying down for a quick snooze. As if.

Anyway, if this was helpful to you, I hope you’ll take a few seconds to share it on your favorite social media platform. You might be surprised who in your circles is struggling with sleep issues and would benefit from this.

Have a great week. I’ll see you next Wednesday!

“At the end of your feelings is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE” — Eric Thomas

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