If you’re like a lot of folks you left regular napping behind around the same time you graduated from kindergarten, and that’s a shame. The truth is naps don’t just feel great they can be great for your health too!
Following are 3 surprising benefits that can come from taking a nap that you probably never knew.
1. Boosts brain power:
If you could use a little brain boost you might give some serious thought to scheduling in a daily siesta. According to recent research taking an hour long nap in the afternoon can help boost brain power, improving memory and your ability to think.
When researchers had seniors perform math problems, memorize words and draw simple geometric shapes the folks who had taken an hour long nap after lunch performed significantly better on the tests than those who didn’t nap at all.1 But, according to the new study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, how long you sleep is important too. Nappers who slept shorter or longer than an hour didn’t do quite as well on the tests as the folks who slept for 60 minutes (but they still outperformed the folks who didn’t sleep at all).
An earlier University of California study came to a similar conclusion. When a group of students took a 90 minute nap after lunch they outperformed non nappers in learning tasks designed to give their hippocampus a good workout.2 According to the researchers it works because one of the functions of sleep is to clean out your brain’s short term memory so there’s room for more information to be stored. In other words, sleep allows your brain to move memories over to long term storage.3,4
2. Improves alertness and performance:
Some folks fear that taking an afternoon nap will leave them feeling drowsy and unfocused, or that they will have a hard time getting back into the swing of things. Turns out as long as you’re not napping so long that you enter deep sleep that’s not likely to happen, according to none other than NASA scientists.
In a study of airline pilots—a group of folks I think we all can agree need to stay on top of things—NASA researchers found that a 26 minute nap improved performance by an impressive 34 percent and alertness by an astounding 54 percent.5 And in another NASA study researchers found naps improved astronauts working memory, or cognitive performance, allowing them to focus better on a task while holding other tasks in memory.6
Other research, published in the journal Annals of Emergency Medicine, found that planned naps improved alertness and performance in another group of folks that have our lives in their hands, emergency room doctors and nurses.7 And a 2008 study found naps outperformed caffeine, helping to improve verbal memory, motor skills and perceptual learning.8
That being said, if you nap too long you can wake up feeling a bit unfocused, or what scientists like to call “sleep inertia.” The feeling generally doesn’t last long and if you find it happens to you the fix is easy. Tackle some less memory intensive tasks until the feeling clears (which research shows aren’t hampered by sleep inertia9), and then simply shorten your nap next time around.
3. Saves lives:
In a long term Greek study researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health uncovered what is probably the best reason for napping that you’re ever going to find. According to the study published in the journal The Archives of Internal Medicine, taking a nap at least three times a week could literally save your life.10
People in the study who took a 30 minute or longer nap three days a week had 37 percent less chance of dying from heart problems than folks who shunned getting the extra 40 winks. The power of naps to protect the heart was particularly strong among men who were still active in the workforce who had a staggering 64 percent less risk of dying from heart disease. Scientists believe that the naps act like a stress relief valve, allowing folks to decompress and remove potential strain on their hearts.
Beyond most researchers supporting that naps are indeed good for our health there aren’t really any hard and fast rules when it comes to napping. In general, experts recommend a “power nap” that last somewhere between 10 and 30 minutes to get the most out of an afternoon siesta. But the research is far from conclusive and as we’ve seen longer naps appear to help with long term memory storage and at the other end of the scale there’s even some research showing super-fast six minute naps can improve a certain type of long term memory called declarative memory.11
So the bottom line is you should experiment a bit and figure out what works best for you. And if you do decide to make napping a part of your life you’ll be in good company past and present. Reportedly Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were nap fans. Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison Leonardo da Vinci and Aristotle were all said to be avid nappers as well. And more recently President Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher and Arnold Schwarzenegger apparently like to sneak in afternoon siestas too.
1. “Afternoon Napping and Cognition in Chinese Older Adults: Findings From the China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study (CHARLS) Baseline Assessment,” First published: 20 December 2016
2. “A Midday Nap Markedly Boosts the Brain’s Learning Capacity,” Neurology Reviews. 2010 April;18(4):12
3. “The Role of Slow Wave Sleep in Memory Processing,” J Clin Sleep Med. 2009 Apr 15; 5(2 Suppl): S20–S26
4. “Sleep, memory, and plasticity,” Annu Rev Psychol. 2006;57:139-66
5. “Crew Factors in Flight Operations IX: Effects of Planned Cockpit Rest on Crew Perfromace and Alertness in Long-Haul Operations, NASA Technical Memorandim 108839, July 1994
6. “NASA-supported sleep researchers are learning new and surprising things about naps,” science.nasa/gov, Accessed 1/11/2017
7. “Improving Alertness and Performance in Emergency Department Physicians and Nurses: The Use of Planned Naps,” Annals of Emergency Medicine, Volume 48, Issue 5, November 2006, Pages 596–604.e3
8. “Comparing the benefits of caffeine, naps and placebo on verbal, motor and perceptual memory,” Behavioural Brain Research, Volume 193, Issue 1, 3 November 2008, Pages 79–86
9. “Effects of sleep inertia after daytime naps vary with executive load and time of day,” Behav Neurosci. 2011 Apr;125(2):252-60
10. “Siesta in healthy adults and coronary mortality in the general population,” Arch Intern Med. 2007 Feb 12;167(3):296-301
11. “An ultra short episode of sleep is sufficient to promote declarative memory performance,” Journal of Sleep Research, Volume 17, Issue 1, March 2008, Pages 3–10
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