We fought naps kicking and screaming as kids. Today, many of us would savor a moment to rest our heads in the middle of the day, but we consider doing so a luxury we simply cannot afford. While taking a snooze may feel like a frivolous indulgence, your brain will actually tell you otherwise. Mini rests give you a mental break from the stress of the day, but they also allow for actual changes in the brain that can help improve short-term mood, alertness and productivity.
“There’s a lot of new data that supports the benefits of a 10- to 60-minute power nap,” says Param Dedhia, M.D., director of sleep medicine at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. Much like moving e-mails into folders can keep your inbox clear, napping may enhance your brain by allowing it to “clear out” its temporary storage space, so there's more room to amass new information. By creating more brain capacity, you can perform tasks and activities better than you would have earlier. In fact, research shows that people who take short, midday naps enjoy improved efficiency, concentration and ability to process information when they wake up. Beyond the mental benefits, naps can also be restorative physically and emotionally.
When Should You Nap?
Most people find that they’re in need of a nap between two o’clock and four o’clock in the afternoon, when we experience a natural drop in cortisol. But the time you go to bed in the evening can have an effect on your optimal nap time as well. If you’re a night owl and stay up past midnight, late afternoon is best. If you hit the sack earlier in the evening, taking a snooze sooner makes more sense.
You may need to experiment in order to find out how long your naps should be, Dr. Dedhia says. Pay attention to how you feel when you wake up from naps of differing lengths, and tweak the duration so that you rise feeling recharged, awake and ready to go on with your day, not lethargic. Naps that are either too long or too late can impact your ability to get and stay asleep when the day is done and it's time to head to bed for the night.
All of this may have you convinced and ready to pull up a pillow…but, when? Though it may seem unreasonable to take a nap during a work day, you may consider using your break time or part of your lunch hour for this purpose. Although a cool, comfortable, dark place with little noise is ideal, you may consider resting in your car or on a blanket in a nearby park, for example, if one is not available. Many offices are even designating “quiet rooms” for this very reason (having you at your best is both to their and your advantage). Those whose days are a bit freer may have more flexibility, of course. New parents may want to lie down when their child does.
Do You Need to Nap?
Keep in mind that while all adults can benefit from midday naps, your body may actually require them if you’re consistently under-rested; a lack of sufficient sleep carries with it some notable health risks. “It may be prudent to consider that naps can be a clue that you’re not getting the right quantity and quality of sleep overnight,” Dr. Dedhia says.
We all are often faced with too many demands for our time and brain power. While working on fitting naps into your day, it may help to think of just how much more attention you’ll be able to give your to-do list when you open your eyes after your restorative rest. Dr. Dedhia adds, “The gold standard is restorative overnight sleep, but naps can make a difference for living your best life.”