Napping: A Habit of Highly Successful People?
Have you ever felt the urge to put your head down on your desk and take a short nap after lunch? Most of us would resist such a temptation for fear of being labeled lazy and unproductive. But consider that some of the most notable figures in history are known to have been consummate nap-takers, including Winston Churchill, Napoleon Bonaparte, Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci and John F. Kennedy. What's more, recent research is providing evidence that a well-timed afternoon nap may be the best way to combat sleepiness, improve work performance, and overcome the late day grogginess commonly known as the "midday dip."
Napping and the Biological Clock
Contrary to popular belief, except for insomnia sufferers, a brief afternoon nap does not necessarily interfere with nighttime sleep. In fact, an afternoon nap may be perfectly compatible with a finely-tuned biological clock. For most people, the sleep/wake cycle includes being awake for about 16 hours and then asleep for about eight. But what many people don't realize is that the body's clock is set with two distinct dips in alertness within a 24-hour period: one at about 2:00 am and another at about 2:00 pm, corresponding to the midday dip. Fighting off the urge to sleep during these times is challenging, especially for someone already suffering from sleep deprivation.
Gregory Belenky, MD, Research Professor and Director of the Sleep and Performance Research Center at Washington State University, recommends naps as a way to make up for lost nighttime sleep. He says, "The beauty of naps is that they add to total recuperative sleep time," adding that "A large number of the world's people divide their sleep into two blocks (with the afternoon sleep called a siesta in Spanish-speaking countries). It is even possible that divided sleep is more recuperative than sleep taken in a single block."
The Benefits of Napping
Experts agree that the best way to fight fatigue is to get enough sleep every night. But for some people, especially those who work long hours, have caregiving responsibilities or work at night, this can be an ambitious goal. Even people who do get enough sleep regularly may feel the effects of the midday dip, especially after a heavy meal. Studies show that taking a nap is a great way to increase alertness and reaction times, improve mood, and reduce accidents. For many people, napping is also a highly pleasurable experience.
A Performance Booster
Fatigue impairs performance and can be dangerous in certain settings. For people who work as commercial drivers, police officers, soldiers, doctors, and other safety-sensitive jobs, alertness can mean the difference between life and death. Take pilots as an example. Mark Rosekind, PhD, President and Chief Scientist of Alertness Solutions in California and former Director of the Fatigue and Countermeasures Group at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), conducted an experiment in which he instructed NASA pilots to take short naps when possible during long haul flight operations. Dr. Rosekind found that compared to long haul pilots who did not nap, the napping pilots had a 34% boost in performance and a 54% boost in alertness that lasted for 2-3 hrs.
Can Napping Make You Smarter?
There are a variety of studies that show that nighttime sleep improves learning. The idea is that newly learned knowledge or skills are integrated in the brain during sleep. But does a nap serve the same role? A new study by researchers at Harvard University has provided strong evidence that it does. The Harvard researchers found that taking a 60-90 minute nap has a benefit similar to that of nighttime sleep and that combining nighttime sleep with napping has twice the effect.
Napping: How Long is Best?
A recent study in the research journal Sleep examined the benefits of naps of various lengths and no naps. The results showed that a 10-minute nap produced the most benefit in terms of reduced sleepiness and improved cognitive performance. A nap lasting 30 minutes or longer is more likely to be accompanied by sleep inertia, which is the period of grogginess that sometimes follows sleep.
Can Napping Protect against Drowsy Driving Crashes?
Most people are aware that driving while sleepy is extremely dangerous. Still, many drivers press on when they feel drowsy in spite of the risks, putting themselves and others in harm's way. While getting a full night's sleep before driving is the ideal, taking a short nap before driving can reduce a person's risk of having a drowsy driving crash. Sleep experts also recommend that if you feel drowsy when driving, you should immediately pull over to a rest area, drink a caffeinated beverage and take a 20-minute nap.
Naps + Caffeine: a Winning Combination for Night Shift Workers
Shift work, which means working a schedule that deviates from the typical "9 to 5" hours, may cause fatigue and performance impairments, especially for night shift workers. In a 2006 study, researchers at the Sleep Medicine and Research Center affiliated with St. John's Mercy Medical Center and St. Luke's Hospital in suburban St. Louis, MO, looked at the effectiveness of taking naps and consuming caffeine to cope with sleepiness during the night shift. They found that both naps and caffeine improved alertness and performance among night shift workers and that the combination of naps and caffeine had the most beneficial effect.
James K. Walsh, PhD, one of the researchers who conducted the study, explains, "Because of the body's propensity for sleep at night, being alert and productive on the night shift can be challenging, even if you've had enough daytime sleep." "Napping before work combined with consuming caffeine while on the job is an effective strategy for remaining alert on the night shift."
Are Naps for You?
In spite of these benefits, napping isn't always the best option for everyone. For example, some people have trouble sleeping any place other than their own bed, making a nap at the office or anywhere else unlikely. Other people simply have trouble sleeping in the daytime; it could be that certain individuals are more sensitive to the midday dip than others – those who are may feel sleepier and have an easier time napping. Finally, naps can leave people with sleep inertia, especially when they last more than 10-20 minutes. Sleep inertia can take time to wear off and has been known to impair performance.
What It All Means
By now you're probably thinking about ways to incorporate naps into your daily routine. Keep in mind that getting enough sleep on regular basis is the best way to stay alert and feel your best. But when fatigue sets in, a quick nap can do wonders for your mental and physical stamina.