Although napping is typically associated with babies, the fact is 1 out of 3 Americans take regular naps. The numbers vary by demographic; for example, men over the age of 50 nap more than women over 50; and as income increases, napping tends to decrease. Now the question is “Are naps a good thing?” They are if you ask Sara C. Mednick, PhD.
Dr. Mednick is an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and co-author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life (Workman Publishing Company, Inc., 2006). Mednick’s doctoral thesis was on the effects of napping, and her research has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals such as Behavioral Brain Research and Trends in Neuroscience. Her work garnered her a grant from the US Department of Defense. Mednick offers the following benefits of taking naps:
- Improves skin and tissue regeneration
- Improves sex drive and sexual function
- Increases growth hormone production
- Decreases cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods
- Reduces the risk of relying on stimulants
- Reduces the risk of fatigue-related accidents
- Elevates mood
- Increases creativity
- Improves memory
- Decreases stress
- Reduces the risk of diabetes
- Reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke
Regarding heart health, Mednick’s claims are backed up by a six-year study conducted jointly by the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Athens Medical School involving 23,500 Greek adults. The researchers found that taking a nap at least three times per week resulted in a 37 percent decrease in coronary mortality.
The use of a nap is increasingly important because we live in a society where it is becoming more difficult to sleep a full eight hours. Mednick says napping is a countermeasure for fatigue and sleepiness. Now that we know the value of napping, the next questions are when to nap and how long to nap.
When we sleep, Mednick says we cycle in and out of three different stages of sleep: stage 1, 15-20 minutes of restorative sleep; slow wave sleep, the deepest stage of sleep; and stage 2, or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the lightest sleep and the stage in which we dream. To get rid of sleepiness and boost energy, Mednick advises taking a power nap of 20 minutes (stage 1), which is restorative and increases growth hormone and reduces cortisol.
Mednick advises against napping for 30-60 minutes (slow wave sleep), because you can wake up groggy in a condition called “sleep inertia” and it may take 30-60 minutes to get back to full functioning. You can avoid sleep inertia by extending your nap to 60-90 minutes, which will make you wake in Stage 2, a lighter sleep; this is especially good for those involved in creative tasks.
Mednick says the best time for napping is about 2-3 pm, as this is the time when we experience a dip in awareness, reasoning, judgment and physiological responses. To find the optimal sleep time, however, Mednick suggests using a “nap wheel,” which, as she discusses in her book, determines the best time to take a nap based upon when you wake up in the morning. For example, if you woke up at 7 a.m., the best time to take a nap would be 2 p.m. However, Mednick says it’s best not to take a nap two to three hours before bedtime.
As for how to nap, Mednick says it’s key to nap in a relaxing, quiet environment – turn down the lights, turn off cell phones and perhaps even use earplugs. If you’re at work, napping in your car might be the best option. If you can, turn down the lights. And if you’re afraid you might oversleep, use an alarm.
We all know the value of a good night’s sleep, but with this new research now we can make a case for getting a good afternoon nap!