Tired is the new busy.
In a 2017 survey by the National Safety Council, a nonprofit advocating for workplace safety, two-thirds of respondents said they feel tired at work. Fifty-three percent feel less productive, and 44 percent have trouble focusing.
Things seem to be even worse now due to the pandemic, with our shifted schedules messing with our sleep.
Naps seem like an obvious solution to our new sleep woes. While they can help, they’re not always the trick to a well-rested existence.
Read on to discover the various benefits of good naps, plus how to take a nap that leaves you feeling fully refreshed.
When done properly (yes, there is a “right” way to nap!), there’s nothing wrong with taking a nap. In fact, a short siesta can boost your mental and physical health. Let’s take a look at the benefits.
1. Better cognition
Taking a power nap leaves you feeling more alert. In turn, your brain should function more efficiently.
2. Improved memory
Naps may promote memory consolidation (the process where our brain turns information into a long-term memory). A good nap right after learning something new appears to help us retain that information.
In a small 2019 study, researchers divided 84 undergraduate students into three groups. All of them spent 90 minutes learning about crab species. Then one group napped for an hour, a second group spent another hour learning (i.e., “cramming”), and the last group watched an hourlong movie.
Then all of them had a final 90 minutes of crab school. After a 30-minute break, they took a test on what they learned and also took another test a week later.
The nap and “cram” group performed better than the movie group on the first test. The nap group outperformed everyone on the second test.
Other research has found that napping can help with perceptual learning (being able to differentiate between various stimuli) and episodic memory (recalling specific events or experiences).
3. Boosted immunity
Although you should keep washing your hands and practicing physical distancing, regular napping may help your immune system.
“Sleep deprivation increases the release of pro-inflammatory markers and causes immunodeficiency,” says Natasha Fuksina, MD, a board certified internal medicine doctor. “Counteracting this with napping during the day for a period of several days improves the immune system and cellular function.”
For example, in a small 2015 study, 11 men slept for only 2 hours one night. The following day, they napped for 30 minutes and then got a full night’s rest that night.
The naps helped reduce levels of inflammatory cytokines and norepinephrine, a chemical that helps control immunity.
You’ll want to be like Goldilocks when it comes to taking a nap: Don’t doze for too little or too much time.
“For most people, the 20- to 30-minute ‘power nap’ is the sweet spot for boosting alertness and focus,” says Jeff Rodgers, DMD, a certified sleep expert with the American Board of Dental Sleep Medicine and the American Sleep and Breathing Academy.
“Waking up just 30 minutes after falling asleep for a nap ensures you’re in the early stages of the sleep cycle and won’t feel groggy upon waking,” he says.
Longer naps may also interfere with the quality of your nighttime sleep, adds Alex Dimitriu, MD, founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine, who is double board certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine.
“Some people can get into cycles of napping by day and sleeping poorly at night as a consequence,” he says.
However, if you’re really struggling, Rodgers says a 90-minute nap may work. “This nap ensures that an entire sleep cycle has taken place, helping avoid grogginess,” he explains.
For the best, most beneficial naps, follow this advice from sleep experts like Rodgers:
- Nap between 1 and 3 p.m. “These hours are a natural slump time for humans. If you try to nap earlier than that, your body probably won’t be ready for more sleep, and if you nap later than that, it can disrupt your sleep at night,” Rodgers explains.
- Set up your environment as you would for nighttime sleep: Make it as dark, cool, and quiet as possible. Try an eye mask or a white noise machine, if those help you.
- You may want to nap on a couch or cozy chair rather than in your bed. “You don’t want to become too comfortable and sleep for too long, since this may make it difficult to wake up,” says Lauren Broch, PhD, a sleep psychologist at Northwell Health.
- Consider a “coffee nap”: Drink a cup of coffee right before you lie down. “Upon waking, you’re refreshed from the nap and the caffeine starts to kick in, both of which can make for a very productive post-nap experience,” Dimitriu says. However, don’t do this too late in the day, or it may make it harder to fall asleep at night.
If you nap during the afternoon, you may want to invest in blackout curtains to make your room as dark as possible.
Also be sure to nap at the same time every day.
Lastly, a wind-down period before your nap may help, Broch says. Put away your devices and take a few minutes to sit quietly, or even meditate if you find the practice relaxing.
Taking a nap at night is fine if you work the night shift or are on a nontypical work schedule.
Stick to the same 20- to 30-minute nap (or 90 minutes if you’re really sleep-deprived).
Also avoid napping too close to the time when you woke up or when you’re going to fall asleep again.
“Figure out what the midpoint of your shift is — the nighttime equivalent of 1 to 3 p.m. for a 9-to-5 job,” Rodgers recommends.
Since napping for too long can leave you feeling more groggy, you’ll probably want to set an alarm.
Dimitriu suggests an alarm that gradually increases in volume because they tend not to startle someone out of sleep.
“Choosing a song with a quiet beginning then builds louder is an ideal solution,” he says. You can also try an alarm clock with a light that gradually brightens.
Napping at the same time every day for the same length of time will also help your body become accustomed to waking up, Broch says.
Although naps have benefits, they aren’t for everyone.
Rodgers recommends looking critically at your afternoon Zzz’s.
“Are you needing to nap every single day just to get by? Is napping a planned activity, or are you just ‘dozing off’ at your desk?” he says.
“Frequent daytime fatigue could be a sign of a serious sleep disorder, like sleep apnea or insomnia, that needs to be evaluated by a health professional,” Rodgers says.
If you’ve received a diagnosis of insomnia, it’s generally not recommended to nap unless needed for safety reasons, such as staying awake when driving or operating heavy machinery, Broch adds.
Naps can support our mental health, make us more productive, and may even benefit our immunity.
Still, many of us want to know how to take a nap that won’t leave us feeling more tired. The trick is to keep your nap to 20 to 30 minutes and choose the same sleeping environment you would at night.
A gentle alarm clock or some pre-nap caffeine can also help you wake up from a nap with energy and a clearer head.
Brittany Risher is a writer, editor, and digital strategist specializing in health and lifestyle content. She’s written for publications including Elemental, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, and Yoga Journal.