Why Naps Are Good For You: A HealthCentral Explainer

When you’re tired, a nap always seems like a great idea, but timing and duration are keys to hitting the sweet spot of a healthy nap. Aim for a 10 to 30 minute nap around 2 or 3 p.m. in the afternoon. Longer naps will make you feel groggy and naps at this time are less likely to interfere with night time sleep.

Here are other key health benefits to napping.

What is going on in the brain during a nap?

In a recent study, researchers used a near-infrared device, which identifies specific networks inside the brain and how they work together, to decipher how the left and right brain were working during a nap.. Fifteen participants wore the device while they napped. Data showed that in both left- and right-handed people the right brain is more active and communicative. Researchers speculate that during the nap, the right brain was busy storing and processing information, daydreaming or other creative tasks.

Another recent study looked the way infant rat whiskers twitch while they nap, and how that may actually shape the brain. The study of rat whiskers has become very popular among neuroscientists, because each whisker maps to discrete regions in the brain that process information from that individual whisker. Researchers found that the infant rat whiskers twitched involuntarily while napping in very complex ways, which were tied to bursts of activity in the brain--something that is not often observed when rats are awake. Researchers believe this twitching may be shaping specific neural circuits and developing the sensorimotor systems. Humans have similar spontaneous movements during sleep, such as rapid eye movement and limb movement, which could also play a role in early development.

Another study has found that when you are sleep deprived parts of the brain may take a quick nap while the rest of the brain appears awake, which can lead to momentary forgetfulness. Previously researchers believed that sleep deprivation affected the entire brain, but now, through electroencephalograms (EEGs), scientists have found that our brain experiences short periods of “micro-sleep,” and this study shows that prior to micro-sleep, the brain is already showing sleep-like activity in certain regions.

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How do naps affect children?

Not only do naps possibly help our brain develop, but they also help us grow, according to a 2011 study of babies and naps. Researchers found that peaks in total daily sleep duration and number of times an infant napped during the day was associated with growth spurts in body length. These bursts in growth tended to occur within 48 hours of the sleep peaks. After analyzing data from 23 infants, researchers found that the probability of a growth spurt was increased by 43 percent for each additional nap and 20 percent for each additional hour of sleep.

Though the exact relationship between sleep and growth isn’t clear, researchers believe it could be due to the release of growth hormone during sleep.

Toddlers are another group of children who benefit from naptime, according to a study from the University of Colorado Boulder. Researchers found that toddlers between 2.5 and 3 years old who missed one daily nap showed more anxiety, less joy and interest and had more difficulty solving problems. In addition, less sleep altered the facial expressions of toddlers, with exciting events being met with a less positive attitude, and frustrating events met with a more negative attitude. Eventually, researchers say this sleep deficit may shape their brain and put them at risk for lifelong, mood-related issues.

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Do naps help seniors too?

While older people may try to stave off a nap in the afternoon so as not to appear lazy, napping can actually give them more energy to participate in social activities, according to a 2010 study. People tend to have more sleep problems as they age, whether it’s getting up in the middle of the night to urinate, or just waking up several times during the night. This can leave them exhausted during the day. Taking an afternoon nap can actually improve quality of life and energy during the day, according to researchers.

Can naps help us learn?

One study published in 2010 found evidence to suggest that people who take a nap and dream about a task they’ve just learned will perform the task better upon waking, than either those who don’t sleep at all or who sleep but don’t report an associated dream. Participants in the study were asked to sit in front of a computer screen and learn the layout of a 3-D maze to find a landmark. The participants were then put down in a random part of the maze five hours later. Those who napped and dreamed of the task found the landmark in less time. Researchers say that the dreams are likely a side effect of unconscious parts of the brain working hard to remember the virtual maze, rather than the dreams leading to better memory.

Another 2010 study found that napping can even boost brain power by clearing out temporary storage space. This can leave the brain open and ready to absorb new information. This study found that an hour nap can refresh the mind and make you smarter. The researchers likened the hippocampus to an email inbox, saying that when it gets full, you need sleep to initiate the clearing process. If you don’t sleep, the incoming information will just bounce into another “folder.” This process was seen to take place in stage 2 sleep. Now researchers are curious as to whether the deterioration of sleep in older people is associated  with the reduction in learning capacity as we age, and particularly Alzheimer’s disease.


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