How do you deal with a dip in energy and alertness? For many, our default may be caffeine – grabbing another coffee, Diet Coke or chocolate bar. But could a smarter strategy be perfecting the art of a power nap? If you regularly work from home, it could be a viable option.
“A power nap refers to a very brief period of sleep, lasting about 20 minutes and no longer than 30 minutes,” says sleep scientist to Savoir Beds, Dr Rebecca Robbins; a sleep researcher, instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and co-author of Sleep for Success!.
Dr Guy Meadows, co-founder and clinical lead at Sleep School, adds that it could be as little as 10 minutes. The key is that you remain in the lighter stages of sleep – which results in an immediate boost of energy and alertness. Sleep for too long "and you will wake up during the deep slow-wave-sleep, in a groggy state and even sleepier than before, an effect known as sleep inertia".
Note: an alternative approach is a full-cycle nap, lasting between 90 and 110 minutes, which is the length of one full sleep cycle – during which you pass through light, deep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stages. Dr Meadows explains that “waking up after the full cycle will land you again in the light stages of sleep, helping you avoid sleep inertia”. These kinds of naps are typically adopted by those seeking to pay off or manage a sleep debt (think shift workers, new parents or those who are unwell).
The benefits of power naps
“Number one is alleviating sleepiness,” Dr Robbins says. “If you are tired in the daytime, ironically we often try to do everything but sleep, but the only true evidence-based strategy for relieving that sense of sleepiness is sleeping.”
Secondly, it boosts your mental and physical capacity, she adds. “We have some evidence that creativity and efficiency improve after a nap, meaning there's a workplace reason to consider napping. From the standpoint of physical exertion, professional athletes, for example, nap, as the energy they’re able to expend physically can increase.”
According to studies, specific health benefits of naps include lower blood pressure, weight management and a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, Dr Meadows reveals.
He also explains that there are emotional health benefits, too. “Napping is proven to help us emotionally by reducing stress and by boosting daytime happiness levels.” Other studies show it can reduce frustration and bolster mental health.
The disadvantages of naps
Despite its myriad benefits, unfortunately napping isn’t recommended for all. “One reason not to nap is if you are someone who struggles with insomnia or are experiencing sleep issues night in and night out,” Dr Robbins tells us. This is because napping reduces sleep pressure, which refers to that feeling of sleepiness that you should experience at bedtime after a long day. She explains that “sleep pressure starts to build over the course of the day, and ideally is at its maximum around your bedtime, say 10pm or 11pm”. If someone is impacted by insomnia, "we want to keep them building their sleep pressure as best as they can so that they are maximally and optimally tired at that time".
When to take a power nap
“The best time to nap is between midday and 3pm, when we naturally feel sleepy,” Dr Meadows says. What’s often referred to as the ‘post-lunch slump’ “is actually the result of a natural dip in the ‘waking’ signal emitted from our internal body clock occurring at this time,” he reveals. To find your ideal nap time, consider whether you are naturally an early riser or more of a night owl. “Early risers tend to nap closer to midday, whereas evening people fare better around 3pm.” Resist the urge to nap any later than that, as it can make falling asleep at bedtime a challenge. “Whatever time you choose to nap, aim to repeat it every day, as this will help to make it a habit.”
How to control your nap length
While an ideal nap length is around 20 minutes, Dr Meadows says that the right napping length for you is when you wake feeling refreshed. “Aim to experiment with different times and when you feel fully alert within five minutes upon waking up from your nap, you know you have found your perfect lap length.”
If you feel disoriented or dazed after a nap, it was likely mistimed. Dr Robbins explains that “if you're really diligent and keep it short, it will be just enough sleep and rest to give you a little bit more energy for the rest of the day”.
If you are new to napping, set an alarm to ensure you wake up after your designated window and don’t slip into unwanted deep sleep. “With regular practice, you’ll notice that it’s possible to start waking up naturally, without needing to set an alarm,” Dr Meadows says.
Whether to nap habitually or not
The pros say that one’s frequency of napping depends on why they are required. As Dr Meadows says: “If you’re feeling drowsy and this is affecting your performance such as your ability to drive, then taking an emergency nap can be an effective way to boost your alertness and energy levels. In contrast, you may choose to nap habitually every day, because it’s part of your healthy daily routine, much like meditating or exercising.”
Napping is a skill, and for those wanting to making it a healthy habit, daily practice is recommended. “On the Sleep School App, we have a guided power nap meditation that teaches you how to both mentally prepare for and finish a nap, so that you can get the most out of it.”
Where to nap
You can nap anywhere that works for you, whether that’s your bed, sofa or a comfortable chair, but “aim to make your environment as quiet, dark and comfortable as possible,” Dr Meadows suggests. As Dr Robbins points out, “because our eyelids are quite thin, during the daytime sun can keep you from falling asleep, so an eye mask is a great idea, especially if it's bright in your environment”.
Also, “there is some evidence that a background noise, like white noise or something that's naturally occurring like raindrops, is really calming,” she notes. Background sounds like this “are also beneficial if you live in a noisy environment with noise like traffic, for example” – which is especially helpful in the daytime.
How else to achieve a successful nap
Dr Meadows says that having the right mental attitude for napping is vital because if you believe you won’t sleep, then you won’t. “Napping occurs on the verge of sleep, therefore if you’re lying with your eyes closed, resting your body and allowing your mind to gently wander, you are on the right track. If you feel wide awake, acknowledge this thought and accept it.” It’s also key to understanding that you don’t have to fall asleep in order to rest. “Paradoxically, this often takes the pressure off sleep, increasing the chance of falling asleep.”
Dr Robbins agrees. “Even if you get a little bit of time with your eyes closed, trying to keep your brain switched off – that is beneficial.”
Besides practicing, there are ways to make naps easier if you struggle to switch off during the daytime, Dr Robbins adds. “Maybe have a notepad and write down the five things that are on your mind. Like '1) meeting with boss later; 2) pick up the dry cleaning after work;' etc. Get it down on a piece of paper and that will allow you to say, 'Okay, now I'm at peace I have 30 minutes to feed my brain instead of try to power through this day tired'.” This kind of positive self-talk can also help, she adds.
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