Power Naps – The Science and Art of the Siesta

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Ah the arrogance of youth. In my younger days I had the opinion that napping was for old people; that sleep was for the weak.

My friend Emily was ahead of the curve though. She would take herself off for a little ‘disco nap’ – a pre-emptive snooze before a hard night of booze, mischief and very little sleep.

If I knew then what I know now, I too would have made a daytime pilgrimage to the feather altar.

Good quality sleep is a major component to being a healthy, happy human. It’s non-negotiable for optimal health. It also forms one of the 5 Circles of Health, the 5 elements that we at Wild Life consider vital for human health and which forms the basis of every programme we write.

So why do we pay it so little heed? Because it’s not sexy and we only really notice the detrimental effects of not getting enough when the wheels finally start to fall off.

Now, first and foremost the best way to get the benefits of sleep is to sleep optimally, generally 7-9 hours per night. This should be your first stop priority.

But shit happens. Life is far from perfect and there are a plethora of reasons that this doesn’t always happen. So how can we still optimise our health with compromised sleep at night?

Enter the power nap

Of course this concept of bi-phasic and poly-phasic sleeping (sleeping in 2 or more intervals) is far from new. People in hotter countries have made the afternoon nap, when the heat makes working unbearable, a total art form and part of the whole cultural identity.

But here in Britain and Ireland, napping is analogous to laziness. But this might just be the biggest mistake we can make when it comes to productivity.

There have been countless studies delving into the science of napping, and when done correctly, it appears to be beneficial for most people in a whole host of ways, including:

  • Increasing alertness – kind of useful for most jobs, absolutely imperative for some.
  • Helps with memory, recall and learning – especially amongst older nappers.
  • Improves immune function.
  • Increases ‘frustration tolerance’, mood and general mental health.
  • May improve cardiovascular health.
  • Aids in body composition goals – it reduces the hunger inducing hormone ghrelin and increases the hormone leptin, which helps us feel satiated.
  • Leaves you looking younger and fresh – “But Glenn, you have a face like an old walnut!” I refer you to my opening paragraph. Napping helps repair and rejuvenate the body’s cells.

I think it’s fair to say that most people have felt the cognitive reduction that occurs during a state of sleep deprivation. Those poor decisions, the forgetfulness, lost coordination; the more deprived, the worse it gets.

Power naps can really help in redressing these problems, but the real ‘cure’ is optimising your nights sleep. Daytime napping is definitely not a replacement for a good night’s sleep. Think of it more like a supplement. Supplements are an aid to our nutrition not a replacement to food.

One study showed that the benefits from a 90 minute nap on learning were equal to a standard 8 hour sleep. However, repeatedly neglecting the 8 hours sleep would quickly negate those benefits.

Even better is to combine the decent night’s sleep with a power nap.

The afternoon nap has been shown to be equal to a dose of caffeine for improving perceptual learning.

Again, this has long been known. Clever, productive and ambitious individuals such as Albert Einstein, Napoleon Bonaparte, Winston Churchill and Thomas Edison all were blackbelts in the art of napping.

Google sleep pods by MetroNaps

And big business is starting to catch up too. Google, Uber, Zappos, and Ben & Jerry’s all now boast dedicated nap spaces in their HQs. They too understand that a well rested employee is a proactive employee.

The Negatives

As with all things in life, there is a Goldilocks zone to napping.

Excessive sleep and napping has been associated with higher levels of C-reactive protein, a marker for systemic inflammation. Systemic inflammation is linked to a number of issues, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes and depression.

For some people, having a regular napping practice totally enhances their health and productivity. For others it’s best left for when you really need it. It’s all about experimentation. See what works for you.

People who struggle falling asleep at night should also approach the power nap with a little caution. Just as snacking before a meal reduces your hunger, napping can, for some people, reduce ones ability to fall asleep, particularly if said nap is later in the day.

Naps also seem to be more productive for those who identify as night-owls rather than early birds.

And for some people, a nap can leave them feeling groggy upon waking.

This grogginess is known as sleep inertia. Some people get it very often, and it may be a sign of poor sleep at night.

For others it is simply down to how long we nap. The sleep inertia seems to kick in when we enter our deep sleep cycle but wake before completing it.

So what’s the best length of power nap?

Well that depends on what you want from it.

Less than 10 minutes seems to do very little.

10-20 minutes is a great length of nap to wake up feeling refreshed. Twisted logic I know, but think roadside nap to reinvigorate yourself during a long drive.

Up to 40 minutes sees us brushing against the border between light sleep and deep sleep cycles. Our brains begin to slow and we benefit from enhanced memory function. It seems to leave the napper refreshed, more alert but still without too much grogginess.

At 45-60 minutes we may still get the great memory benefits, but with increased sleep inertia (grogginess). We have entered the deep sleep cycle fully, but not long enough to fully complete the cycle.

A 90 minute nap takes us into the REM stage of our sleep cycles. This is where creativity get rejuvenated, emotions get processed, and we are able to cement the learning of new skills into our brains and neurons. You have also completed a whole sleep cycle so should not feel groggy.

This could well be a perfect nap length for you to up your game at work, but convincing your boss might be a problem.

90 minutes seem to be the upper limit of recommended nap time. Any longer and you’ll risk cycling through your sleep cycles again and waking groggy.

If you find that you are needing 90 minute naps regularly then that could well be a sign that your sleep at night time is less than optimal.

A great, general purpose nap, according to the research, is around the 20-40 minute mark. Enough to reap the benefits, but short enough to avoid grogginess and affect sleep come bedtime.

And the suggested best time to do it is between 1-4pm. This usually coincides with a post lunch, blood sugar slump and the start of melatonin (the sleepy hormone) production. Plus it’s still early enough to avoid disrupting sleep latency (falling asleep).

My power nap practice

Long gone is my fear of missing out if I have a little kip. I now understand that the power nap is the secret to becoming heroic in Herculean proportions.

So here is the procedure to my most powerful naps.

Tell/warn/threaten the rest of your family.

Napping may increase ‘frustration tolerance’, but being interrupted mid nap most certainly doesn’t.

Let those who share your space know of your intention. On pain of death!

And don’t forget to switch off the bloody phone.

Block out unnecessary noise, build auditory ambience, change your brain.

My daughter traverses the staircase with the ethereal grace of a three-legged elephant, my pubescent son has little control over the pitch or volume of his larynx, and my mother-in-law twitters about how lazy I am outside my door.

Headphones are essential.

I use these to both drown my family out and create the perfect auditory ambience.

I use binaural beats set to low delta wave (1.5-2Hz) to promote good, calm brainwaves, carrying me into the Land of Nod.

I like to listen Jon Hopkins‘ Meditations or Music for Psychedelic Therapies albums, or binaural tracks by Cory Allen as my soundscape. I have made a number of different length playlists depending on how long I want to nap for.

Other apps I have used and like are Pzizz, which combines music, binaural beats and voice, and Better Sleep, which is customisable with sounds and music of your choice.

My new favourite headphones, the Shokz OpenMove are sadly no good for this, so I wear ear phones. I may invest is some specific sleep headphones in the future, such as the Acoustic Sheep’s SleepPhones. (Yes, I take naps that seriously)

Make it dark

Next up I want the room I’m in to be as dark as possible. Lights off, curtains closed, and eye mask on.

50 shades of Wild

My top eye mask is the Mavogel cotton eye mask. Super soft, folding down really small, it blocks out light amazingly. Maybe not ideal for long eyelashed nappers though.

Enter the cocoon of cosiness

This next one has been a game changer for optimising my nap sanctuary, and it brings me such joy when I put it on.

Is it an oversized bodywarmer? Is it sleeping bag? Is it an insulated kaftan with 1980s breakdance aesthetics?

Yes, yes and yes!

From the wonderful ethical, UK clothes manufacturer Passenger Clothing comes the Good Times Recycled Sleeping Sack, or as I like to call it, my sleeping robe.

My first camping trip was at age 5 months. From then on every holiday was of the camping variety. The sleeping bag became my happy space. I love them.

Like a human chrysalis, when I’m wrapped up in a sleeping bag I drift off effortlessly, to awaken and emerge like a glorious butterfly, fluttering my wings with perky alertness and annoying enthusiasm.

The sleeping robe allows me even more benefits. I am able to open the bottom and walk around. I am able to poke my arms out the sides to read, fiddle with my headphones or gesticulate aggressively to my muttering mother-in-law behind the door.

It means I can don the sleeping robe and start up the snuggly chain reaction as I get everything else ready. Should I need to get up and scream at my children, I can, whilst still surrounded by my cocoon of tranquillity.

It’s a portable haven. A life raft of peace in a sea of bonkers chaos. It has (pretty much) become the only thing I want to wear. I’m typing this very sentence whilst shrouded in cosy ecstasy. It’s the best thing I’ve ever bought.

The Nappucino

white ceramic coffee teacup beside silver teaspoon

This is a technique I rarely use, but could be good for those that want extra alertness and a short 20 minute nap.

Basically you bang down a coffee or two then hit the pillow. Theory being that your little sleep will be enough to rinse out the metabolites from your brain, things like adenosine that make you drowsy. 20 minutes later the caffeine kicks in, waking you up and bonding with the now empty adenosine receptor giving you further wakefulness and alertness.

This is not a great long term fix though, but can help in a pinch. It’s even mentioned in the Highway Code, rule 91 if you want to check.

So that is my quick and simple guide the art and science of the power nap. Now go forth and conquer. After a little lie down that is.

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