Naps: A User’s Guide

Hayley Dawes
4 September 2022

You snooze, you win. Research shows that napping can have a powerful effect on health and cognition. This is the art of a scientific siesta…

Some of history’s greatest thinkers swore by the idea of a power nap, and scientific literature is beginning to suggest they were right to. In recent years, researchers have found that a short doze can improve everything from memory and creativity to cardiovascular health and immune function. Napping is a superpower, it would seem, capable of restoring body and mind.

As we know, adults need 7-9 hours of sleep a night. We also know, we’re not getting it. Screen time, stress, caffeine habits and work are all to blame.


Micro Naps

According to the theory posited by Thomas Edison, micro naps can energise your mind, improve alertness, and supercharge your creativity – but it’s got to be quick, otherwise you slip into the wrong phase of sleep and wake up groggy instead.


What Happens to Your Body During a Nap?

Mostly the same things that happen when you sleep at night, just in a single cycle (usually) and over a shorter period of time. First you doze in that hinterland between wakefulness and sleep, which usually lasts around 5 minutes. Then, as you lose consciousness, you enter stage 2 sleep where your breathing slows, your muscles relax and your core body temperature falls. Brain activity slows down, too.

Some 10 to 25 minutes later, deep sleep (stage 3) begins, characterised by a particular type of brain activity called delta waves. Researchers believe this stage of sleep, which can last up to 40 minutes, is vital recovery time for the body: a biological restoration during which your immune system and other bodily systems get a reboot, and your memories are consolidated.

Lastly there is stage 4 or REM sleep. At this point, you’re 60 to 90 minutes into your siesta. This is the point when dreams will be most vivid, and your body will enter a sort of paralysis with muscle freezing up.


Can Napping Make Up for Lost Sleep? 

Does a nap genuinely let you ‘catch up’ on sleep lost to late nights or insomnia? Neuroscientist Dr Brice Faraut explains, “the power of the siesta lies precisely in its capacity to produce certain effects of a night-time sleep, but in record time.”

Sleep is sleep, is the point. It doesn’t really matter if you only grab five hours at night, if you make for it with another two after lunch. You’re still putting the time in. One full sleep cycle lasts around 90 minutes, during which time your body passes through every stage of sleep and all the effects that come with them.

One thing: don’t nap for too long or too late in the day because it will likely impact your night-time sleep. It might satisfy your homeostatic drive, which is your body’s internal need or pressure for sleep, but if you take a long nap in the late afternoon, it’s highly likely that you’ll have a harder time getting sleep at night.


How Can a Nap Improve Your Health?

It’s hard to overstate the importance of sleep for healthy functioning of your body and mind. The consequences of non-optimal sleep reverberate over time. On a short timescale of a few days, it decreases several aspects of cognition, reducing attention, memory formation and the ability to generate ideas. If sleep quality remains poor for an extended period of time, the consequences spread further beyond cognitive functions into the realm of physiology, such as metabolism, immune and inflammatory systems.

A nap provides all the benefits to be had from the physiological functions of a night’s sleep, only on a smaller scale. There is growing scientific evidence that napping not only boosts alertness and cognitive performance, but also reduces the activity of the stress systems and normalises the immune dysfunctions reported as a risk of sleep debt.


Can Naps Improve Creativity?

If you are looking to increase your level of creativity, try taking naps regularly. Research has found that napping boosts creativity by fostering the formation of connections between related items, promoting the utilisation of embedded rules and lists associated with learned material, and facilitating the integration of new and old information.

Naps reset your brain by sending it through a period of nonrapid eye movement sleep. Naps don’t have to be long; even a brief nap can boost your creativity, because this twilight zone between sleep and wakefulness is where the brain weaves complicated stories.


What’s The Best Way to Take a Nap?

When it comes to sleep, we all have things that work and things that don’t, and the same applies when it comes to napping. Here are some tips to follow:

Time it right

The best times to nap are during the morning, between 9am and midday, to recoup some of the REM sleep lost by interrupting your night sleep too early. The other time to try is during the early afternoon, for a siesta.

Make it a habit

Humans are driven by consistencies – if you want to try establishing naps as part of your routine, try to find a time that you can consistently devote to napping. Make that the time when you just shut off.

Lie back

The ideal napping position is lying flat on a bed or sofa. If these aren’t available, sleep seated in an armchair and tilt the backrest. Use a neck cushion to support your neck. Additionally, banish blue light from screens to really shut off. 

Have a coffee first

It sounds counterintuitive, but if you want a restorative nap and to wake up feeling alert, you can try a coffee. The caffeine will take maybe 40 minutes to kick in, so you can boost the effect of waking up feeling alert.

Make sure you wake up

For a brief power-boost, hold an object in your hand when you nap. When it falls, you should feel better rested with great ideas. Put an alarm on for 20 minutes for a longer nap. And wake up rested, without the sleep inertia effects.