Excellent sleep is known to provide many health benefits. These include improved heart function and cell repair, as well as improved memory and cognitive function. In short, sleep allows your body to repair and regenerate for the next day.
The Benefits of a Nap
The idea that we should sleep in eight-hour increments is relatively recent. Human beings sleep in many different and varied ways. For example, millions of Chinese workers take a nap of about an hour after lunch, and it is also common practice in India and Spain.
Naps even have physical benefits. In a study of 23,681 Greeks over six years, participants who napped three times a week were 37% less likely to die from heart disease. Not to mention all the other benefits of napping:
Sleep experts have found that naps increase alertness, stimulate creativity, reduce stress, improve endurance, motor skills and accuracy, help lose weight, reduce the risk of heart attack, improve mood and increase memory. According to Professor Leon Lack of Flinders University, 10 to 15 minutes of sleep appears to be the optimal amount of time to improve performance, reaction time and alertness. This improvement seems to continue for up to two to three hours after a nap.
Naps have been shown to be beneficial to the learning process because they help us better assimilate and retain information. In a study conducted by Susanne Diekelmann, participants memorized picture cards to test their memory. After memorizing a deck of cards, they had a 40-minute break during which one group fell asleep and the other stayed awake. After the break, both groups were tested on card memorization, and the group that had been napping did better:
To the researchers’ surprise, sleepers did much better, remembering an average of 85% of the cards, compared to 60% for those who had stayed awake.
Science shows us that when a memory is first captured in the brain – the hippocampus, to be precise – it is still “fragile” and is easily erased, especially if the brain is asked to memorize more things. When we look at the effects on the brain, napping seems to “push” memories towards the neocortex, an area of the brain that allows memories to be stored more durably by preventing them from being “overwritten”.
Taking a nap also allows you to free the information in the temporary storage areas of your brain and prepare it to integrate new information. A University of California study found that studying at night, like cramming the night before a test, actually decreases the brain’s ability to assimilate information by up to 40%.
To explain the process of cleansing your brain with a nap, Dr. Matthew Walker compares the functioning of the hippocampus to a mailbox. It fills up and you have to sleep to start, “picking up the mail. Until you sleep, the mail stays in the inbox and you can’t pick it up.
Dr. Walker also mentioned that napping before learning is just as important as napping afterwards: sleep prepares the brain like a sponge, ready to absorb new information.
How to enjoy the benefits of a nap?
1. Know how long it takes you to fall asleep.
If you are trying to take a nap, you should certainly consider how long it takes you to fall asleep. If you need help solving this problem, you can try using a tracker like Jawbone UP, or a standby application on your phone. Once you have a rough idea, you can factor it into your nap time.
2. Don’t sleep too long.
Napping can become a problem if you sleep too long. This can expose you to ‘sleep inertia’, the feeling of being dizzy and confused when you wake up or even more tired than before. According to the results, the most effective naps are micro-naps (15–20 minutes) or long naps of 90 minutes to get a full-sleep cycle. In between, the waking phase can be difficult and affect your performance.
3. Choose the right time of day.
Taking a nap when your energy level drops will help you avoid the feeling that the day is dragging on as you try to put your fatigue behind you. It’s usually a little after lunch for those of us who work traditional schedules:
Due to the natural cycles of our circadian rhythms, we experience two peaks of fatigue per 24 hours. The first peak of drowsiness is usually in the middle of the night, and the other, 12 hours later, falls in the middle of the afternoon.
If you don’t get enough sleep, you’ll feel this drop in energy more intensely and be more inclined to take a nap. Rather than fighting it out with energy drinks or coffee, take a short nap to recharge your batteries before resuming the afternoon.
Remember to set up your nap area with as little light as possible and take a blanket to keep you warm while you sleep.
So don’t wait any longer and take a nap!