Anatomy of the Perfect Nap
How to maximize your daytime snooze — and why you can drop the guilt about taking one
En español | While an afternoon siesta has never been a mainstay of our productivity-obsessed culture, there's reason to believe that napping can be more useful than slothful. Research shows that a short snooze can boost brain power, improve your memory as well as your mood (including your ability to shake off daily frustrations), and make you more alert. NASA scientists discovered that a 26-minute nap improved pilot performance by a whopping 34 percent — and companies such as Google, Samsung, Procter & Gamble, and Ben & Jerry’s not only allow but actually encourage employees to take snooze breaks.
Napping can also help bridge the divide between feeling wonderfully rested and seriously dragging if you're one of the 36 percent of Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 who are not getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night. “As we get older, it can become harder to get enough quality sleep at night,” says Michael Grandner, director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. “Naps can be a good way to reduce fatigue and boost brain performance. They usually can't replace lost sleep at night, though they can help you get through the day,” he says.
Naps can also help to compensate for dips in our natural wake-and-sleep patterns, which can vary by individual.
“Our circadian rhythm cycles throughout the day,” says David Plante, M.D., medical director of the Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And while hormones triggered by sunrise make us feel more alert in the morning and start to tail off around bedtime, “most of us also experience a small dip in our level of alertness in the early afternoon, which may cause a bout of drowsiness,” he says. Sometimes, a quick snooze can be just the thing for handling that fuzzy feeling.
That said, experts note that there are better and worse ways to maximize daytime sleep. For one thing, the ideal nap is best timed between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. If you lie down later than that, it will interfere with your nighttime sleep. “It's like having a snack too close to dinner time,” says Grandner, who notes that shorter is also better. Ideally, a nap should be between 10 and 30 minutes. Extend it past that, and you will enter into a deeper (or slow-wave) stage of sleep and may wake up feeling groggy.
To get the most out of such quick-hit sleep, “Look for a place that’s cool, dark and quiet, so that the brief period of sleep is as solid and uninterrupted as possible,” says Indira Gurubhagavatula, M.D., a sleep medicine specialist at the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. To avoid “sleep inertia” — that is, sleeping too long and waking up groggy — she recommends timing your nap with an alarm.
And if you can down a cup of coffee right before — yes, before — your siesta, all the better. A Japanese study found that doing so can amplify the benefits of a nap, helping you feel more alert and refreshed when you wake up. “Caffeine usually takes about a half-hour to really kick in — which, coincidentally, is about how long your nap should be,” Grandner says.