I have always wanted to be a nap person. I never attended pre-school and if we had naptime in kindergarten, I don’t remember it. In my adult life, I always experienced a dulling of my senses after taking a daytime nap. As a longtime insomniac, I also found that a nap during the day ruined my chances of falling asleep at a reasonable time that night.
I have had sleep problems for most of my life and did a sleep study which showed that I have sleep apnea, so it is no surprise that I often write about sleep. Sleep is related to weight loss. It has been shown to solidify our day’s learning, so that when you say “let me sleep on it,” you probably are doing a good thing.
But almost all the talk about napping lately is about short “power naps.” You can find lots of articles, books and even accessories to help you nap at your work desk (though you are bound to catch the boss’ eye if you use the Ostrich Pillow) and pillows for napping on airplanes or at home. There are at least a dozen phone apps to monitor and time your naps. In New York City, MetroNaps is a business that provides darkened cot-like redoubts for folks who don’t want to fall asleep at their desks. U.S. Marine commanders in Iraq mandated a power nap before patrols.
I did some searching recently for books on naps and information on power napping and there are plenty of choices out there with titles like Take a Nap! Change Your Life., The Art of Napping and Power Sleep.
Of course, there are also the more serious books books on sleeping, like The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep, that include chapters on napping pros and cons.
An interviewer asked her “If sleep is the new sex, is your book like a kama sutra for nappers?” She replied that “…in The Practical Napper I explain – among other things – that if ‘sleeping together’ is a euphemism for having sex, then napping together is essentially foreplay. As you and I both know, ‘foreplay’ can bring a whole new level of intimacy to a fledgling romance and add zing to mature relationships, even after many years of marriage. So when people ask you and your spouse what you did over the weekend, feel free to answer, “Well, you know, nothing productive, mostly just foreplay.”
The latest research on napping very much promotes the idea of short power naps which are usually described as being under 20 minutes. Why that very short time? Your first thought might be that 20 minutes can’t have much of a positive effect.
The book, The First 20 Minutes, focuses on just that kind of research and its subtitle gives you an indication of the supposed benefits of these short nap breaks: “Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer.” It is targeted at athletic types.
Medically, sleeping benefits heart functioning, hormonal maintenance, and cell repair. A power nap, if done correctly, is said to have those effects too.
The shortness of the nap is based on years of sleep studies that have shown our sleep comes in five stages. In a typical full night of sleep, these stages recur cyclically. Power naps keep you in the first two stages and that is important.
Stage one when you are slipping into sleep is when your electrical brain activity, eye and jaw-muscle movement, and respiration all slow down.
In the second stage, our temperature lowers which relaxes muscles further. These two stages prepare us for the deeper but dreamless slow-wave sleep of stages three and four.
You don’t want to drop into stage three because waking at that point will leave you feeling less relaxed and more groggy. Stage five is when the rapid eye movement of REM sleep occurs with your eyes twitching and your dreaming intensifying.
The timing of these stages vary from person to person and based on the physical space of your nap or sleep, but after years pf monitoring sleepers, scientist can generalize on the time of the stages.
The five stages repeat every 90 to 120 minutes. Stage one can last up to 10 minutes and stage two until the 20th minute.
That means that less than 10 minutes of sleep is not really helpful. It is stage two that seems to have restorative benefits. Those benefits are listed as improving alertness, stamina and a perceived solidification of the connection between neurons involved in muscle memory. That’s why the benefits are not just brain function but muscles. Current research seems to indicate that there is a mind-body connection because neurons perform the same function as before, but now faster and with more accuracy.
An article in Mens Journal points to research by Dr. Sara Mednick, a scientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies who focuses on sleep and napping research. Mednick’s research shows that power naps can lift productivity and mood, lower stress, and improve memory and learning.
After being a public school teacher for several decades, I still find I hit a wall and get sleepy around 3 p.m. I blamed this on conditioning all those years to the end of the school day. Mednick looked at MRIs of nappers and found that brain activity stays high throughout the day with a nap, and without a nap it declines as the day wears on.
Is there any downside? As far as I can tell, the only danger is falling into that stage 3 and beyond sleep.
Taking a nap but waking up in slow-wave sleep seems to produce what’s known as sleep inertia. Your limbs feel heavy, eyes can’t focus, speech is a bit slurred and you generally feel sluggish. You would actually be better off napping to the 50-minute mark or going through a full 90-120 minute sleep cycle if it is sleep that you really need.
My own recent napping research hasn’t worked out too well because of that timing. If I set my alarm to buzz at 20 minutes, I never get 20 minutes because it take me 5, 10 or even 15 minutes (if at all) to fall asleep. I end up being awakened after 7 minutes of nap time. I need a nap tool that starts when I fall asleep and then started the 20 minute countdown. Do you know of one?
That Mens Journal article has a series of tips for napping. Here are a few I like:
Try to nap in the morning or just after lunch. Our circadian rhythms make late afternoons a more likely time to fall into deep (slow-wave) sleep, which will leave you groggy.
As a migraine sufferer, I recommend darkening your ” nap zone” and wear an sleep eyeshade. Darkness stimulates melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone.
One reason we like a blanket is that body temperature drops when you fall asleep, but I’ve read several times that having cool feet actually improves sleep.