Power Naps—Unleashing Your Brain’s Natural Energy Booster

May 2014 View more

iStock_000013804678LargeDo you ever crave a quick nap in the middle of the afternoon? Go ahead and get some shut-eye, your brain needs it. Researchers say there are clear benefits to napping such as improved memory and increased alertness. That is, if you do it right.

Give Yourself an Energy Boost

Sleep expert Dr. Phyllis Zee, Northwestern University, says napping for the right amount of time, at the right time of day, is the key to feeling refreshed. “For example, in Latin countries, people who take a siesta are healthier even in old age. A nap during the day can help improve memory. And for most of our society, which is sleep deprived, a nap can help with a little energy catch-up and allow you to be more productive,” said Dr. Zee.

Timing is Everything

Dr. Zee says the best time to nap is between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. “That is when your circadian clock allows you to sleep and it’s most efficient. Napping later in the day can affect your ability to sleep at night.” A 20 to 40 minute nap is ideal, with 30 minutes being a good average. But if you let yourself go too long, that nap can be counter-productive. “Naps that are too long can produce sleep inertia, feeling of confusion and ‘out of it’ for several minutes up to 30 minutes. It may also influence one’s ability to sleep at night because you unloaded some of your sleep need,” said Dr. Zee.

The short duration of a power nap prevents the person’s brain from entering slow-wave (deeper) sleep. People with insomnia, or those who have difficulty falling or staying asleep at night, should avoid naps.

Benefits of Napping

A power nap can knock your stress level down a few notches. Researchers discovered that stress hormone levels were at lower levels in those patients who found time for some quick shut-eye in the afternoon. Research shows that the stress hormone cortisol dramatically drops after a nap, especially if you tossed and turned the night before. Power naps can also boost your creativity and motivate you to workout. And naps can be good for your heart. Researchers in Greece studied more than 20,000 people who had no history of coronary heart disease, stroke or cancer. They found that those who took a 30 minute nap, three times a week had a 37 percent lower risk of heart-related death. Countries where siestas are common tend to have lower levels of heart disease.

Some of the best benefits of power naps include improved alertness and better memory retention, sharpened motor skills and increased stamina. NASA sleep researchers have found that a nap of only 26 minutes can boost performance by 34 percent.

Signs of Sleep Deprivation

Naps can help you recharge, but they can also be an indication that you’re sleep deprived. If you dream during a nap, that means you’re not getting enough sleep overall. “You should not get rapid eye movement (REM) sleep in a short nap. Most of dreaming occurs in REM sleep-but you can also have dreams in lighter sleep stages,” said Dr. Zee.

If you’re always drowsy on the ride home from work, or your energy levels crash during the afternoon, you’re probably an ideal candidate for a power nap.

Keys to The Perfect Nap

  • 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. is the best time
  • A 30-minute nap is ideal
  • Avoid caffeine late in the day, as well as high-fat foods and sugar
  • Foods high in protein and calcium can help you get efficient sleep
  • Darken the room if possible
  • Use a blanket to make up for your body’s drop in temperature during sleep
  • Set an alarm