How to Get the Most out of a Nap
by Lane Vail
Sleep, along with nutrition and exercise, shapes the backbone of overall health, yet 40 percent of Americans get an insufficient amount, according to a recent Gallup survey, and the potential health risks are considerable. “Sleep deprivation affects every organ system and disease state,” says Michael Breus, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Scottsdale, Arizona, and founder of TheSleepDoctor.com. He notes that it’s been associated with higher rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer and mortality.
“Get all of your sleep—seven to eight hours—in one big block at nighttime,” counsels Breus. Yet the circadian rhythm dictates two peaks of sleepiness in a 24-hour period— in the middle of the night and again 12 hours later. Scientists now know that the homeostatic rhythm builds and interacts with it throughout the day, so that the longer we are awake, the sleepier we become. Mid-afternoon is when both circadian and homeostatic sleepiness peak, resulting in the ubiquitous 4 p.m. slump.
Is napping a sensible solution to normal daytime drowsiness? Perhaps. “Naps are a double-edged sword,” says Dr. Lawrence Epstein, director of the sleep medicine program at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. While they help relieve short-term sleepiness, poorly planned naps can perpetuate an unhealthy cycle of daytime sleepiness and nighttime wakefulness.
Be a Better Napper
A study published in the Journal of Sleep Research suggests that merely falling asleep may initiate memory processing and cognitive consolidation, helping explain why German scientists found even six-minute naps to be rejuvenating. If substantial daytime sleep is needed to overcome a deficit, strive for 90 to 110 minutes, the length of time needed to complete a full sleep cycle. Here are other practical tips.
Reflect on the rationale. Boredom, laziness or avoiding work are the wrong reasons to nap, says Amanda Chan, managing editor for healthy living at The Huffington Post, which instituted two cozy nap rooms in its New York headquarters after multitasking founder Arianna Huffington collapsed from exhaustion several years ago. A quick pick-me-up to boost mental agility and mood is a reasonable excuse to snooze.
Plan a prophylactic nap. Forestall late afternoon fatigue by napping between 1 and 3 p.m. Waiting until the peak of sleepiness to nap will more likely result in grogginess or interfere with nighttime rest, advises Epstein.
Embrace darkness, coolness and quietude. Melatonin, “the key that starts the engine of sleep,” is suppressed by even the slightest amount of light, so wear eyeshades, suggests Breus. Keep a blanket and earplugs handy.
Lie down. If a bed or couch is unavailable, try napping on a yoga mat on the floor. A chair should be reclined to support the lower back and avoid straining the neck and “bobblehead” syndrome, says Breus.
Power down. Setting an alarm to sound in 10 to 25 minutes limits one to the first two sleep stages: falling asleep and light sleep. Breus explains that sleeping longer than 25 minutes drifts into deep sleep, from which waking results in grogginess and impaired fine motor skills, leaving us feeling worse off than before.
Napping at Work
While many progressive businesses, such as Google, Apple and Zappos, permit or even promote workplace napping, most companies are still skeptical. “We live in a culture that minimizes the importance of sleep,” comments Epstein. “We prize productivity and think it shows worker loyalty to put in excessive amounts of time.”
“Sleep is never a waste of time if it’s helpful.”
~ Dr. Michael Breus
Ironically, growing research suggests that napping may boost the brainpower needed to function at peak performance. A recent study found that nightshift air traffic controllers that napped for 19 minutes showed better vigilance and reaction times than those that did not nap. Other documented benefits include better concentration, memory and creativity.
It’s best to seek out a sleep sanctuary at work, such as an office with the door closed and blinds drawn, an unused conference room with a couch, a first-aid office cot or even a nearby napping spa, says Chan. Another option is to take a nap in the car, but Breus insists that nappers tell colleagues where they’re going so they’re aware of it. Better yet, bond with a “nap buddy” willing to read nearby during snooze time. “You’re very vulnerable when you’re asleep,” he says. “Be safe.”
If sleeping is not currently condoned in the workplace, consider approaching the human resources department with information on the positive effects of appropriate napping on work performance. Suggest implementing a sleep wellness program, which can offer education on sleep deprivation, techniques to improve sleep and individual screening for sleep disorders.
Lane Vail is a freelance writer in South Carolina. Connect at WriterLane.com.