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The Science of a Good Nap

Hayley Dawes
31 August 2022

For a society constantly trying to over-extend, over-perform, and over-deliver, skipping out on sleep may be seen as the ultimate badge of productivity. Even the infamous inventor Thomas Edison was so consumed by his need to stay productive, he often attempted to sleep just a few hours per night.

Napping has long been a symbol of laziness, but actually it is an essential bodily function that improves our memory, creativity, empathy and problem-solving abilities.

Over the past 15 years, there have been studies showing that your metabolism and your immune system are quite affected by sleep deprivation. Your ability to appropriately metabolise foods, your ability to fight infection, many physiological processes are impacted. That’s on top of the short-term disadvantages like memory problems, reduced reaction times, and fatigue, which most of us have probably experienced after a bad night’s sleep.

More importantly though, there are ways to stop or at least limit sleep deprivation – and it isn’t just having an eight-hour sleep in one solid block.


The Power of The Nap

There are plenty of ‘polyphasic sleep’ schedules: sleep less, but in more frequent doses. These are probably not going to work too well in the long term – since you’re still only getting a few hours of sleep over 24 hours – but they do have one thing going for them. Naps. 

There is some evidence that you don’t necessarily need to get all your sleep in one big chunk. For a lot of operational environments, people might get a main sleep where it’s four or five hours, and then they might be supplementing with a one- or two-hour nap in the afternoon. That seems to be a way that you can sort of ‘hack’ your sleep.

Our brains require at least one lengthier sleep cycle per night to keep everything ticking along. That’s because there’s a basic ‘anatomy’ to our nightly sleep, consisting of two main components: rapid eye movement or REM sleep, and non-REM sleep.

Non-REM sleep is further broken down into three stages:

Stage 1 is when you are just transitioning to sleep, and only lasts a couple of minutes.

Stage 2 is a light sleep where your body temperature drops, and eye movement stops.

Stage 3 is slow-wave sleep, which occurs mostly in the first half of the night. This is the kind of sleep you need to have to be refreshed in the morning.

All these different stages are important for different reasons, but Stage 3 especially is thought to be involved in the restoration and recovery of the brain, as well as the maintenance of sleep more generally. This whole period only lasts about 70 to 120 minutes per cycle, so ever with four or five hours of sleep, you are getting all the components needed for a good rest. Small naps can then help to complement this larger sleep period.

Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California, and author of Why We Sleep, said people who have trouble falling asleep at night should approach naps with caution, and that everyone should avoid napping after 3pm. “If you nap too late in the day it’s a bit like snacking before main meal, it just takes the edge off your sleep hunger at night,” he said.

The ideal length, according to the scientists, is 20 to 25 minutes. Any longer and you’ll fall into a deeper sleep cycle, which lasts for about 90 minutes. This means when you wake up you will experience “sleep inertia”, or grogginess.


Care for a nappuccino?

If a plain nap just isn’t doing enough for you, this is a particularly exciting hack for coffee enthusiasts. Research was recently published on the ‘nappuccino’ – it is essentially having a coffee before you have a nap.

Why does this work? Along with other physical effects, caffeine blocks a compound called adenosine from accumulating in our brains. Adenosine reduces the brain’s firing rate, and helps us get to sleep; then, once we do sleep, it’s whisked away to start the day (or afternoon) afresh.

So, coffee and sleep together makes you wake up even more refreshed than either alone. This is an easy sleep hack we all have access to and strategically use caffeine.

The average person has a big cortisol spike – a stress hormone – in the morning to get us going. That’s a very normal thing. So, we don’t really need to have coffee first thing in the morning, but people want to have it because they feel a little bit sluggish. Instead, having caffeine in the late morning would help you get through the afternoon, without keeping you awake throughout the night. 

As with many other variable traits within our species, some people also just get lucky with their genetic sleep lottery. There is a big range – some people need more and some need less. There are some people who naturally can get by with a much shorter amount of sleep.

Of course, getting less sleep and chugging coffee aren’t just about maximising productivity. Some people have insomnia or anxiety around sleep and knowing that your health is incurring damage without the right number of hours is unlikely to help quieten the voices in one’s head.

So, it’s reassuring to know that once you do get back to a normal sleep schedule, the brain has a surprising ability to bounce back, and many of the problems associated with sleep deprivation do get better. when we change our sleep habits and get more sleep, we also see that some of those mental and physiological effects go away.

The next time you feel like a nap might be a waste of time, remember it’s just the opposite. If you can get it, there’s truly no better productivity hack than a quick nap.


How to get the most from your nap 

The trick is to work out what kind of nap suits you best. Unfortunately, this takes a lot of trial and error, but we think it’s worth it. Here are some tips to help you work out the best way to get the most from your nap: 

  1. Learn how long you take to fall asleep

If you’re trying to nap for a specific amount of time, you need to factor in the length of time it take you to get to sleep. Try using a sleep tracker.

  1. Don’t sleep too long

The problem is that this can give you sleep inertia, the feeling of waking up groggy and even more tired than you were before.

  1. Choose the right time of day

Napping when your energy levels are naturally decreased can help you avoid the dreaded infinite-hour feeling, where the day drags on as you try to ignore your sleepiness.

  1. Practice

Try experimenting with different times of the day, different nap lengths and different ways of waking up.