Want Better Sleep? A Daily Nap May Help

Mara Unkefer

Photo by kevin laminto on Unsplash

Being an adult is hard sometimes. It means more responsibility and more stress, and the afternoon nap that was a necessity during childhood becomes a frowned-upon habit. I’m personally a huge fan of naps, and fortunately, the science on the matter backs me up.

Lack of sleep is associated with poor job performance, impaired driving, obesity, depression, and a host of other health issues, yet the number of adults in the U.S. (and many other countries) that report not getting enough nighttime sleep is on the rise. Concerns over the effects of sleep debt have fueled many studies to help understand sleep and the best ways to prevent the consequences of not getting enough — the simple solution? Take a nap!

Why Nap?

Adult napping hasn’t always been frowned upon, and in many cultures, it still isn’t. Observation of modern hunter-gatherer societies suggests that monophasic sleep, or sleeping in one large block every night, may have only developed with the advent of artificial light. Many ‘pre-light’ human societies sleep mostly at night but spend time awake between sleep cycles. In many of these societies, sleep is polyphasic, meaning it occurs in multiple shorter blocks throughout the day or night. It turns out napping may be more natural for humans than previously thought.

Humans are among the minority of mammals that have monophasic sleep/wake cycles, most mammals are polyphasic sleepers, including some of our closest primate relatives. Reintroducing polyphasic sleep has become a trend among life-hackers — though naps are required at intervals throughout the day, overall sleep time is less than the traditional monophasic 8 hours. (I’m currently prepping to test out a polyphasic sleep cycle myself — I’ll share my experience here when I do.)

Some companies and universities have caught on to the pro-adult-nap movement and provide napping pods for employees, and they’re reaping the benefits of improved worker productivity and mood. Many people don’t have a good place to take a nap at work, and if you’re one of them, a good 20 minutes when you get home can revitalize you and set you up to make the most of your evening. Unlike stimulants, a short power nap provides a natural energy boost with health benefits across the board.

Less Stress & Heart Disease

Research has shown that an afternoon power nap as short as 10 minutes lowers blood pressure and overall levels of stress hormones. Perhaps related to this effect, men who report taking naps at least three times a week are 37% less likely to die from heart problems.

Increased Productivity

Even naps as short as six minutes have been shown to improve memory, learning, and overall performance. Researchers have shown that a nap as short as 20 minutes can also help prevent burnout during the day and boost afternoon creativity. A short afternoon nap does much more for your brain than a cup of coffee!

Skip Hitting Snooze

Studies indicate that a 20-minute nap in the afternoon provides more restorative rest than sleeping an extra 20 minutes in the morning. This is well documented, but researchers are unsure why — some speculate that it may be related to our history as polyphasic sleepers. Didn’t get your full 8 hours last night? A nap may be better for catch-up sleep than going to bed early or sleeping in.

How to Nap Like a Pro

To get the most out of your nap, timing is critical. Normal sleep occurs in a roughly 90 to 110-minute cycle with three basic stages:

  1. Light sleep (0–20 minutes) — Light sleep encompasses the early stages of sleep when you transition awake to sleep, and the brain and body begin to relax. You are easiest to wake up during this light sleep and are less likely to be groggy if woken during this stage. Often a second short period of light sleep occurs in the transition between deep sleep and REM sleep.
  2. Deep sleep (20–60 minutes) — Sometimes called slow wave sleep, deep sleep is often characterized as the most restful stage. You are harder to wake up and will wake up feeling tired if deep sleep is interrupted. This sleep stage is particularly important for body restoration and healing.
  3. REM sleep (60–90 minutes) — REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is the final stage of the sleep cycle, when you are hardest to wake up and when dreaming occurs. REM sleep is suspected to be important for memory storage and lack of it impairs the ability to perform complex tasks.

Waking up mid-stage could leave you feeling more tired than before your nap. The goal is to time your naps to wake up either between stages or after a full cycle:

  • 15–20 minutes is ideal for a quick refresh — you’ll reap most of napping’s benefits and wake up without feeling groggy.
  • 45–60 minutes is perfect if you’ve got more time and want to feel more rested, aim to wake up during the brief period of light sleep at the end of your deep sleep stage.
  • 90–120 minutes lets you get in a full sleep cycle, and will provide maximum cognitive benefits.

Times for each stage are approximate and depend on your unique sleep style and how tired you are. I’ve had great napping success using the app Power Nap — it guesses your sleep stage based on your body movements, and automatically picks the best time for you to wake up within a timeframe you set.

Napping Struggles

The most common objection that people have to daytime naps is the concern that it will interfere with their nighttime sleep. Keeping your nap short and at least 4 hours before bedtime will ensure that you reap the benefits without losing sleep at night.

If you think napping isn’t for you, many studies have found that a meditation session can be as restorative as a nap. 20 minutes of meditation offers an amazing range of health benefits and can leave you feeling just as rested.

Keep in mind that some people have to learn how to nap — laying down to relax at the same time every day can help train your brain that this is nap time. If you’re struggling when you first start, hang in there! It gets easier with practice.

I took a combo of these approaches when I first started experimenting with napping to improve my energy levels. It took me two weeks of practice naps — I call them zen naps — to get in peak napping mode. I lay down for 20 minutes and clear my mind by focusing on my breathing until I either fall asleep or my alarm goes off. Regardless of how long I actually sleep, I always feel refreshed and more alert when I get up!

Find Your Best Sleep

The sleep pattern that will work best for you is unique to your body and daily activities. Whether you go fully polyphasic or just incorporate an afternoon snooze, taking the time to find your best sleep schedule can dramatically improve your energy levels and focus throughout the day.

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After a decade of laboratory research in molecular biology, development, and behavior, I shifted my focus to science communication. Today I write stories about science, education, and whatever else strikes my fancy.

Baltimore, MD

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