The Power of the Power Nap (and How to Perfect It)

Perfect the nap and your productivity and happiness will thank you. Mess it up and you’ll wake up crankier than ever. Here’s how to make your shut-eye work for you.

According to research from the Sleep Foundation, on average, more than one-third of adults sleep less than seven hours per night. We’ve all been there. Young children, work stress and dogs who think they belong under your covers can play havoc with a restful night’s sleep. Couple that with long commutes and hectic work schedules and it’s clear many of us could do with a bit more shut eye.

The term ‘power nap’ was first suggested in 1998 by American social psychologist James Maas who also believed afternoon naps were rocket fuel for productivity. “Naps have been part of human life for centuries,” explains Dr Deborah Lee, a GP at Dr Fox Pharmacy. “The Greeks and Romans often took a nap, usually during the hottest time of day.”

The Romans – and Maas – were on to something; recent data found power naps can increase productivity by 2.3% – while sleep deprivation causes businesses to lose around two weeks of productivity per year.

Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley agrees. As did Winston Churchill, Leonardo DaVinci, and Thomas Edison. More recently, Lady Gaga and Benedict Cumberbatch are rumoured nap adherents. Meanwhile, companies like Nike, Google, and Uber, provide sleep pods and actively encourage workers to take a sleep break.

Despite naps’ current popularity, not all of us are reaping the benefits: the Sleep Foundation found that while 81% of adults have taken a nap of 10 minutes or longer in the past three months, only 7% of adults nap every day – despite 60% of adults saying they had felt such high levels of stress in the past two weeks that it interfered with their daily living.

All of which begs the question: in a world where we have our diet, exercise, and recovery dialed in, is it time to start taking napping seriously too?

How long is a power nap?

For Korina Burkhard, a nurse and sleep expert at Dozy Sleep, the ideal nap is between 10 and 20 minutes. “This allows you to remain in non-REM sleep (lighter sleep), which prevents feeling groggy after waking and enhances alertness,” she says. “Longer naps of an hour or more may negatively affect nocturnal sleep.” – a phenomenon backed up by the National Institute of Health.

If you really want to dial it in, 10 minutes might be the sweet spot: a study published in the journal Sleep looked at the efficacy of 5,10,20 and 30 minute naps in 24 volunteers and found the 10-minute nap “produced immediate improvements in all outcome measures (including sleep latency, subjective sleepiness, fatigue, vigour, and cognitive performance).”

The benefits of a power nap

“Sleep is vitally important for human health,” says Lee. “When we sleep a range of metabolic and physiological processes swing into action, including clearance of abnormal brain proteins, detoxification and excretion of unwanted products, and regulation of the immune system. In fact, sleeping less than the recommended seven hours a night increases mortality risk by 12%.”

Plowing ahead when fatigue is taking over is a false economy; even astronauts can benefit from a bit of shut-eye. In fact, one study found that astronauts who were allowed to fall asleep for 26 minutes while in the cockpit improved their level of alertness by 54%, and their overall job performance increased by 35%.

You might not be piloting multi-billion pound spacecraft into the stratosphere, but you can feel the benefits. A 2023 study found adults aged 40-69 who regularly took naps had larger brain volumes than those who didn’t. What’s more, in a 2015 randomised controlled trial 11 healthy men were restricted to only two hours of sleep per night. The next day they were allowed either no nap or a 30-minute morning and afternoon nap.

Those who didn’t nap were found to contain higher levels of noradrenaline – one of the key neurotransmitters of the sympathetic nervous system which is activated by stress – as well as higher levels of interleukin-6, an inflammatory marker. “Stress is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, hence sleep may reduce the risk,” explains Lee.

As well as improving mood, promoting brain health and boosting creativity, napping is also known to improve memory. And, like most things that are good for you, it matters how much you do it: a 2022 meta-analysis of 54 studies in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews found that habitual nappers – those who nap at least once a week – gain more than the occasional nappers.

When’s the best time to take a nap?

Nap too late in the day and you might interrupt your sleep patterns for the night ahead, possibly leading to insomnia. To get the most benefit, align your nap with your circadian rhythms. Lee outlines how:

“Our bodies have an internal body clock which governs our sleep/wake cycle or ‘circadian rhythms,’” she says. “This is a group of highly specialised cells called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) which sit inside the hypothalamus, right behind the eyes. The SCN responds to nerve impulses generated in the retina. When it is light, the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin, is switched off and we wake up. As evening falls and the darkness sets in, the light-sensitive retina sends signals to switch on melatonin production, and we begin to feel sleepy.”

Lee goes on to explain that our circadian rhythms are even more specific than we once thought. “When you wake in the morning your alertness is at its highest level for around three hours,” she says. “This is a good time to go outside and get some natural sunlight, and for achieving good work productivity.”

Lee says we suffer a dip in alertness for two to three hours after lunch, making this the best time to take a nap. “Late afternoon and early evening alertness levels rise again, before tailing off again an hour or two before bedtime,” she adds. She advises you to stay awake until it’s time to sleep for the night, making sure not to drink caffeine or alcohol during this period as they could mess up your eight hours.

How to power nap

Find napping difficult? You’re not alone. To give yourself the best chance of dropping off, Burkhard recommends starting with relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and experimenting with a few different sleep positions to ensure maximum comfort.

Here’s what else you can try:

Tune in to white noise

“In a 2022 systematic review of 34 studies of 1103 adults, 19 studies found that different types of noise – white noise, pink noise, and music – had a positive outcome on falling asleep,” says Lee.

Block distractions

Counsellor Susan Leigh recommends keeping earplugs (Loop is currently leading the recent earplug revolution) and eye masks handy to reduce disruptions – especially if you’re napping on the go. “Some offices have even installed nap pods or other quiet areas for relaxation or a short period of restorative sleep,” she says. It works; one study that found blocking out light raises your levels of melatonin.

Knock back a can of Daily A-Z Vitamins

“If you’re taking an afternoon nap to get an energy boost, you may benefit from drinking caffeine first,” says Leigh. “The brain and body feel the impact of caffeine about 30 minutes after it’s consumed, so having caffeine immediately before a short nap may improve alertness upon awakening.”

Get the temperature right

“A 2012 study found that the thermal environment was one of the most important factors in getting good sleep,” explains Lee. Do note: a 2017 study of 765,000 Americans recorded the most sleep disturbance during the summer months. According to the Sleep Foundation, 15.6 to 20 degrees Celsius is ideal.

The dark side of power napping

We know regular napping is good in moderation, but overdoing it can lead to grogginess – scientifically known as “sleep inertia”, as Burkhard explains:

“When you sleep, your brain will cycle through different stages, including REM sleep and deep sleep. When you nap too long, you enter deep sleep, where the brain’s activity pattern slows, and some neurotransmitter systems, like adenosine, adjust their levels. Adenosine increases in the brain with prolonged wakefulness. It onsets sleep and helps maintain deep sleep. Waking up before adenosine is fully cleared is believed to cause sleep inertia.”

The symptoms could last between a few minutes to as long as an hour or more – the last thing you need when you’re hoping to add a bit of pep to your step. Meanwhile, Lee explains that naps are not recommended for those who suffer from insomnia as they can make nighttime sleep worse.

“Remember, everyone’s sleep needs are different,” adds Leigh. “While some people thrive on naps, others may find them disruptive. If you find it hard to take naps you might be able to recharge through better diet, exercise, or fresh air. If you’re still struggling, talk to your GP.”

Words: Tom Ward

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