Continuous scientific breakthroughs over the past 20 years are enhancing our understanding of the mental and physiological processes affected by sleep hygiene and habits. To that end, the current data clearly demonstrates several benefits of napping—a practice that, as recently as 2009, even the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommended we avoid.
Though it’s important to note that there can be risks for people who try to use napping as a substitute for adequate nightly slumber, the facts remain: short naps (ideally 20 minutes, and no longer than 30 minutes), taken with intention at least 7-8 hours before bedtime, can deliver a range of benefits. These include improved brain function, stress relief, and a multitude of other valuable perks.
In addition to the minimal scientific proof of these benefits (until relatively recently), napping has also been frowned upon by most of our society for countless generations. High achievers in particular often neglect to take breaks of any kind. They dismiss the benefits of napping in favor of “powering through,” aligning with the myth that this will result in bigger success and productivity gains. The idea that slowing down could actually result in a more effective work performance has long been defined by employers. It also clashes with the majority of beliefs so intricately woven into the fabric of our “hustle” culture.
Wearing our busyness as a badge of honor, Americans are among the last to embrace what many other cultures—including those of most Hispanic American countries, as well as Greece, the Philippines, and Nigeria—have practiced for centuries: the siesta, or afternoon nap.
Finally, science is catching up to what these societies have known all along. We’re learning that our brains and bodies really do thrive when we take pause and that napping restores and refreshes in ways no other method can.
Backed by science, these nine benefits of napping should help you release the outdated ideology that paints napping in such a negative light.
1. Beat the Afternoon Slump
Our brains naturally produce a mild spike in melatonin levels in the early-mid afternoon which is an oft-overlooked cause of daytime sleepiness. However, when we are aware of the cyclic nature of our sleep-wake patterns, it’s not surprising that evidence supports early afternoon as the ideal time for reaping the most benefits from napping.
Instead of slogging along at a snail’s pace, only able to give a fraction of your effort and energy, an afternoon power nap can help you to realign with your body’s natural rhythm. This short investment of time will pay off in spades when you return to your day feeling revitalized and back “in the flow.”
2. Pump up Your Problem-Solving Skills
Harvard sleep researcher Robert Stickgold says napping makes people more effective problem solvers. His research group has shown that taking a nap seems to help people separate important information from extraneous details.
In other words, napping boosts analytical skills and executive functioning, promotes innovative and creative thinking, allows us to be more adaptable and flexible in our thought processes, enhances initiative, and supports resilience.
3. Enhance Brain Function
It’s common practice to rely on coffee to feel alert and focused, especially when we feel sleepy during the day. In fact, caffeine is used by approximately 90% of North Americans every day.
Believe it or not, naps are actually more beneficial and effective than that pot of medium roast, your mocha latte, or even a triple espresso. In contrast to caffeine, napping has been shown to enhance not only alertness and attention but also some forms of memory consolidation. In some cases, caffeine even impaired performance, whereas napping was shown to improve it.
4. Boost Productivity
Tired brains are easily distracted, which leads to a lot of effort expended for little result. A study from the New York Times demonstrates that distraction lowers productivity by a whopping twenty percent! If you’ve ever found yourself struggling to stay on task after a night of poor sleep, you have experienced this firsthand.
Research shows that napping can actually counteract the decreased alertness and performance caused by nighttime sleep deprivation.
Note: It is important to remember that although napping can improve focus and alertness after a bad night’s sleep, relying on this consistently is not advised. If difficulties in falling asleep or staying asleep persist, there may be an underlying sleep disorder that needs to be addressed.
5. Avoid Negative Mindset Traps
It is easy to fall into a trap of negative self-talk when we consider—or succumb to—midday napping, especially if we believe the stigma of “laziness” that our society has associated with rest, breaks, and napping.
Beating ourselves up with “should”s and guilting ourselves out of certain behaviors is damaging not only to our personal empowerment but also to our energy. We can therefore conserve energy by aligning with our body’s natural cycles rather than fighting them.
One vital building block of effective self-leadership is the ability to shut down negative self-talk. By practicing self-acceptance with regard to our mental, emotional, and physiological requirements for rest, we move into constructive thought management, thus enhancing both individual and organizational performance.
6. Connect With Our Intuition
Regardless of our religious or spiritual beliefs, intuition is a faculty of our minds to which we all have access. One of the most well-known scientists of all time, Albert Einstein, said that:
“the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that has created a servant but has forgotten the gift…. We will not solve the problems of the world from the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”
Our intuitive mind taps into our subconscious, allowing us to access what some call our “sixth sense” or a “gut feeling.” It enables us to see the big picture beyond logical reasoning. This ties in with the problem-solving benefits noted in benefit #2, as well as leading to an increase in our self-awareness.
Stress, lack of sleep, distractions, and refusing ourselves “downtime” are all factors that dim our intuitive light. Napping for brief periods can help us relax into connection with this underrated superpower.
7. Improve Our Health
As mentioned previously, taking a short daytime nap supports the body’s natural rhythms. In doing so, we boost our health by nixing the need for the “band-aid” energy boosters that we crave (e.g. coffee, sugar, simple carbs) but which throw our entire sleep-wake cycle out of whack.
Caffeine is a major culprit in this, especially when consumed later in the day because it blocks adenosine receptors and obstructs our natural circadian rhythm.
Food and drinks containing these substances are often used in an attempt at boosting energy but result in flash-in-the-pan energy bursts that can cause a multitude of health issues including cardiovascular disease, susceptibility to cold and flu, diabetes, weight gain, and depression, to name a few.
Energy quick-fixes aside, it is also known that insufficient sleep itself wreaks havoc on our health by contributing to risks of anxiety, dementia, and stroke. Napping, then, is a much healthier alternative.
8. Relieve Stress
Any time we unplug from the sensory input of our external world, we open ourselves up to a stress-relieving calm and inner peace. Napping is a very obvious way to unplug and helps our brains to process and clear away the information overload that builds up every day and contributes to stress.
Interestingly, falling asleep is not even necessary in order to feel the benefits: the simple act of closing our eyes reduces cognitive load or “brain drain.” In fact, more than 50 percent of the surface of the brain is devoted to processing visual information. When we close our eyes, we literally free up the energy associated with that 50 percent, allowing our brains much-needed recovery and reduction in stress.
9. Improve Learning
Learning is not limited to our time in grade school. Our personal growth, success, and even happiness are influenced by lifelong learning.
One aspect of learning is the assimilation of new information into our long-term memory banks. After all, what good is learning new information if we are unable to access that knowledge later on?
Several studies and experiments show the learning benefits of napping, demonstrating that it helps transfer newly learned information onto long-term memory.
Redefining the Nap
We can easily reap the benefits of napping when we remember that it is not, in fact, lazy.
We can uproot the stigma of break-takers and rebel against that “always-on” attitude that actually leads to reduced productivity, decreased happiness, and yes, even less monetary affluence.
It’s high time our collective mindset of misconceptions catches up to science and embraces the plentiful benefits of napping. Then, and perhaps only then, can we see intentional napping breaks for what they truly are: a power play in our daily schedule, and a critical part of our strategy for living life on purpose.
Featured photo credit: Adrian Swancar via unsplash.com