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What’s in a nap? If you’re doing it right, napping brings a bunch of benefits: improved learning ability, memory, alertness, physical and mental stamina, and relief from stress. To avoid grogginess and other possible side effects, however, you need to be strategic about napping. This flowchart helps you figure out whether a nap will work for you or against you.
What are you hoping a nap will do for you?
Napping can make you smarter and improve your performance and alertness on the job. It can help you learn more, remember what you’re studying, and feel better.
Napping improves learning and memory:
- College students with GPAs of 3.5 and higher were much more likely to be nappers than were their peers with lower GPAs in a 2010 study in Sleep and Breathing.
- A 10-minute nap significantly improved alertness and cognitive performance in young adults, according to a 2001 study in the Journal of Sleep Research.
- Napping for 90 minutes improves young adults’ capacity to learn, a small 2010 study found.
- Napping is generally more effective than caffeine, especially for memory improvement, according to a 2008 study in Behavioral Brain Research.
Napping improves tolerance and decision-making
In a 2015 study, participants who napped for an hour in the afternoon were better able to tolerate frustration and less prone to impulsive decision-making compared to the non-nappers, according to the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
Napping relieves stress
A 45- to 60-minute nap reduced the effects of stress in undergraduate students in a 2011 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. The students recovered from a stressor more quickly than stressed students who didn’t nap.
Napping improves physical performance
Athletes had quicker reaction times and performed better after a one-hour nap, according to a 2013 study in the Journal of Shangqiu Normal University.
If you’re looking to make all your troubles go away, napping isn’t the answer.
“Sleep can be a great way to help yourself if you’re sick, but it’s not the best way to cope with tough times,” says Dr. Sharon Sevier, chair of the board of directors of the American School Counselor Association. “When you’re asleep, you’re avoiding your problems, but when you’re awake, you can get the support you need from yourself and others.”
Need to compensate for missed sleep?
Skimping on sleep seriously affects our performance—and makes us oblivious to just how poorly we’re doing. That’s according to a 2003 study in which researchers at the University of Pennsylvania restricted people’s sleep. Even as the participants became less able to sustain their attention and succeed at memory tasks, they insisted they had adjusted to the shorter sleep hours, according to the journal Sleep.
Expecting a late night?
If you’re expecting to be up later than usual that night, planned napping—taking a nap before you get sleepy—may help. Remember, though, that all-nighters are highly disruptive to your body and mind. Sleep-deprived cramming is unlikely to help you perform better on tests, research shows.
Are you low on energy and planning to drive?
If you’re sleepy and planning to drive, take an emergency nap.
This is critical. Sleep-deprived drivers are as dangerous as drunken drivers, according to a study in the journal Nature (1997). Napping improves our alertness and reaction times. Pilots who nap during flights are better at landing planes, according to a classic study in the Journal of Sleep Research.
If you feel sleepy while driving…
Pull into a safe, well-lit area, such as a rest stop or restaurant parking lot, and take a 15- to 20-minute nap minute nap, says the National Sleep Foundation.
If you can’t nap before driving long distances, and are not really tired, use caffeine.
Long-distance commercial drivers who used caffeinated substances were less likely to crash their vehicles than those who didn’t, a 2013 study in The BMJ found. But if you’re really tired, caffeine is not enough. Don’t drive.
What’s the time?
The best time to nap is in the early afternoon: 1–3 p.m.
Fortunately, this is probably when you most want to snooze. “This sleepiness comes from a true physiologic process, because we have a dip in the alerting signal of our circadian rhythm,” says Dr. Shelley Hershner, director of the Collegiate Sleep Disorder Clinic at the University of Michigan (quoted on the graduate school website).
Napping later than 3 p.m., however, could set you up for a wakeful night. Try another way to pick up your energy:
- Snack on vegetables, fruit, beans, and nuts. The nutrients in these food groups are natural energy boosters, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
- Drink water or herbal tea. Dehydration can cause fatigue, according to dietitians at the University of Michigan. From midafternoon onward, avoid caffeine; that will keep you up at night, too.
- Don’t just sit there. A few jumping jacks or yoga moves, or a quick walk, will help you feel more alive. Even a 15-minute walk can give you an energy boost, says the National Health Service in the UK.
How much time do you have for a nap?
You need at least 10 minutes, and sometimes that’s enough. Even brief naps can result in measurable performance improvements, research shows. “Did you know that a six-minute nap increased subjects’ memorization of a list of words by 11 percent? Hey, most of us would be happy to take a letter grade higher, especially for a 10-minute investment in time,” writes Dr. Shelley Hershner of the University of Michigan (on the graduate school website, referencing the Journal of Sleep Research, 2008). Allow a few extra minutes for falling asleep.
If you don’t have time to nap, caffeine might help. Caffeine does not have the same brain benefits as napping, but it makes us feel more physically awake (because napping can induce grogginess), according to a 2008 study in Behavioral Brain Research.
But the same time limit applies: Don’t consume caffeine after 3 p.m., or you risk your nighttime sleep.
Do you have more than 10 minutes?
The optimal length of a nap is disputed. Check out these options, then see what works for you.
Up to half an hour
Napping for 10–30 minutes gets you some brain benefits without inducing grogginess, so how do you wake up on time? Some studies have found benefits in “coffee naps.” If you’re confident you can fall asleep quickly, try drinking a cup of coffee and taking your nap; around 25 minutes in, the caffeine will kick in and wake you. A small study in the journal Ergonomics suggested coffee naps may be more effective for alertness and performance than napping alone.
Up to an hour
Some evidence suggests we can nap for up to an hour without feeling that grogginess and inertia. In a 2012 study, naps of 40 and 60 minutes allowed for more slow-wave (deep) sleep and led to bigger performance improvements than 20-minute naps did, according to Chronobiology International.
Up to 90 minutes
A typical sleep cycle (incorporating deep sleep and REM sleep) takes about 90 minutes. In studies, naps of 60 or 90 minutes have resulted in greater benefits for visual and memory tasks, compared with shorter naps.
Be wary of napping beyond 90 minutes. If you nap longer, “it’s harder to wake up and leaves you groggy because you’ve interrupted a sleep cycle,” says Nancy H. Rothstein, director of corporate sleep programs at Circadian, a workplace performance and safety consultancy based in Massachusetts.
Are you having trouble sleeping at night?
If you’re having difficulty falling asleep at night, a nap will likely make that worse.
Do you have insomnia?
Insomnia is difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep at night, accompanied by daytime exhaustion, that is not explained by lifestyle and behavioral factors. It can be related to stress, transitions, psychiatric conditions, medications, or substance use. Most adults experience insomnia at some point in their lives, according to the Mayo Clinic.
If you are having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, behavioral changes can help, such as being physically active during the day and avoiding stimulating activities (including screen use) close to bedtime.
If you think you are experiencing insomnia, talk with your health care provider or go to your counseling center. Medication may help in the short term. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a proven treatment for insomnia, and can be effectively delivered in the traditional therapeutic setting or online, according to the Journal of Psychology Research and Behavioral Management (2011).
Do you have access to a quiet, comfortable location?
A promising nap environment looks like this:
- You can lie down; it’s harder to fall asleep when you’re sitting up.
- You have a blanket nearby in case you get cold, but you won’t get so warm and comfy that it’s a struggle to get up.
- You can darken the room or use an eye mask.
- You won’t be disturbed by noise; if necessary, use headphones or a noise machine.
Bonus! Some colleges provide napping stations for students.
Shelley Hershner, MD, director, Collegiate Sleep Disorder Clinic, University of Michigan.
Nancy H. Rothstein, director, corporate sleep programs, Circadian, Massachusetts.
Sharon Sevier, PhD, chair, board of directors, American School Counselor Association.
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