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The science of napping: The many reasons to add a daily nap to your life

Home » Uncategorized » The science of napping: The many reasons to add a daily nap to your life

1 January 1970

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Boost your health, tackle fatigue and lay rest to burnout culture with sweet, restorative sleep, suggests Jessica-Belle Greer.

To nap is to be carried away on cushiony clouds and returned to a kinder reality. In our always-on culture, it gives our conscious mind a chance to rest, while our body prepares itself for what comes next. For many of us struggling to get enough sleep, napping is a scientifically proven solution – yet until now, it has been more commonly associated with cranky kindergarteners than with well-adjusted adults. It’s time for a wake-up call.

“Optimal sleep is something that’s missing overall in society,” says Dr Alex Bartle of the Sleep Well Clinic, while a study by insurer Sovereign has found that more than a third of New Zealand adults don’t get enough sleep. In the study, deprivation was more common among those aged 35 to 49, and women were more likely to express dissatisfaction about the quantity and quality of their sleep. Another study, published in Sleep Health, found that Māori and Pasifika people tend to have a particularly short overnight sleep – less than seven hours.

Alex recommends eight hours of shut-eye a night, and says less than six hours on a regular basis will have “significant detrimental effects on mental and physical health”. He says side effects can include heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and depression, and naps are “very useful” for those who don’t get enough sleep, such as teenagers, shift workers and “the ultimate shift workers”: new mothers.

Strategic snoozing

There’s a new kind of shift worker we can add to the list – the “slashie”. Ghazaleh Golbakhsh is a writer, filmmaker and Fulbright scholar who works mostly from her Auckland home office. She’s recently published a powerful collection of essays, The Girl from Revolution Road, while completing a PhD focusing on Iranian film made in the diaspora and preparing for future film projects. She’s also a guest actor on Shortland Street.

For her, no one day – and no night’s sleep – is the same. Ghazaleh enjoys a nap once or twice a week, usually during weekends, to help her catch up on sleep or prepare for a night of work. She’s aware it’s a privilege. Once her meetings are done for the day, she’ll set her alarm for 20 or 90 minutes – the latter is known to be a full sleep cycle. “Physically, I feel better,” she says of waking up from a nap. “Mentally, I feel like it was a treat.”

Napping takes Ghazaleh to a happy place. It’s a form of self-care that helps with her mental health. “I think the attraction of it, too, is a way to kind of escape the real world,” she says. “I live with anxiety, I’ve had that my whole life. So it’s kind of a nice way to not have to have that for an hour and a half.”

Napping helps Ghazaleh’s creative process, too. “I think it really helps relax your mind,” she says. “And usually that’s the best way to suddenly come up with a new idea anyway – when you’re not thinking of it.”

Ghazaleh Golbakhsh
Ghazaleh Golbakhsh swears by napping as a self-care strategy and to maximise her performance during busy days juggling her portfolio career. However, she questions the notion of napping purely for output. “Why do we need to always be on? It’s a real capitalist thing: you must be productive.”

Alex recommends allowing yourself naps of up to 20 minutes – short enough to sleep lightly and wake up without feeling groggy. If you want to be able to fall asleep at night as usual, the ideal time to nap is around 3pm. Finding a quiet, dark room with a cool and comfortable temperature will help. Ghazaleh likes to add to this the dulcet tones of a documentary by BBC historian Lucy Worsley playing in the background.

But Alex cautions that if anxiety or insomnia are the reasons you struggle to drift off at night, trying to sleep during the day can exacerbate these issues. His nationwide clinics focus on relaxation strategies – including breathing, muscle relaxation, visualisation, mindfulness, meditation, prayer and self-hypnosis – to help clients break through the worry they’ve wrapped around slumber.

Woman sleeping on red hammock

If you’re getting enough sleep at night but still feel the need to nap, it’s worth investigating the quality of your shut-eye. You may have a medical condition such as sleep apnoea that’s stopping your sleep from being restorative.

The body’s circadian rhythm can create an afternoon lull, but if you’re lucky enough to get enough sleep at night, Alex suggests you resist the urge to nap during the day, and go for a walk instead. Exercise in a shaded outdoor environment, without sunglasses, allows natural light to reach our retinas, producing serotonin that’s converted into melatonin at nightfall. “The light-to-dark cycle is the most powerful trainer of our sleep-wake cycle,” he says.

If you can stay awake during the day, that’s what we generally recommend, so you’re likely to build up what’s called your homeostatic pressure to sleep. You get more sleepy at night, so you sleep better.

Alex would choose a nap over coffee any afternoon. Caffeine increases the “fight or flight” hormones adrenaline and cortisol, and has a half-life, staying in your body and interfering with sleep long after your last sip.

For those on the night shift, strategic napping can have operational benefits. A New Zealand study showed that night-time air traffic controllers scored better on tests of alertness and performance if they took a planned 40- minute nap. A similar study at NASA showed 40-minute naps taken by military pilots and astronauts improved performance by 34 percent and alertness by 100 percent.

Even if you work sociable hours, napping on the job is becoming more acceptable. It’s encouraged at Google, Uber and Samsung, which provide office sleep pods for their employees.

“Many years ago, if someone was found napping at work, they’d be fired,” says Alex. “Increasingly, though, particularly in the States, companies are realising that, actually, napping isn’t bad for business, that people are likely to be much more productive if they allow napping.”

Power players

For every Richard Branson who sleeps for only a few hours each night, there are prominent figures who have advocated for napping to assist with clear-headed decision-making, including John F Kennedy and Albert Einstein. The term “power nap” was coined by Winston Churchill, who saw it as his secret weapon in World War II. “You must sleep sometime between lunch and dinner, and no halfway measures,” he advised. “Take off your clothes and get into bed. Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That’s a foolish notion held by people who have no imagination.”

The artist Salvador Dalí would fall asleep with a key in his outstretched hand. As he entered the hypnagogic state between consciousness and sleep, the key would fall to the ground with a clang, waking him so he could record the images that had subconsciously appeared.

Georgetown University has since shown that, during naps, the right side of the brain, associated with creativity and big-picture thinking, remains active.

Anti-capitalist considerations

Although researchers and advocates have shown napping is a smart thing to do, it still has stigma attached to it. Since her high-profile collapse from exhaustion, the co-founder of HuffPost and Thrive Global, Arianna Huffington, has been on a mission to lift the status of sleep – making a habit of napping in her glass office with the blinds open.

“The practice of napping still suffers from our collective delusion that equates sleep with weakness and laziness, but the performance-enhancing benefits of naps have been no secret to many leaders throughout history,” she writes in her book The Sleep Revolution.

I expect the nap room to soon be as universal as the conference room.

A new set of nap advocates see rest as a form of resistance to oppressive structures. Founded in the US in 2016 by Tricia Hersey, The Nap Ministry celebrates the liberating power of naps with immersive experiences, workshops and performance art. Practising what she preaches means she’s not accepting interview requests for the rest of the year, but Tricia recently wrote to her 310,000 Instagram followers:

“This is not just about taking a nap and resting. We are attempting to push back and disrupt toxic systems: capitalism and white supremacy. We are about reparations. We are about justice. We are about decolonizing and dismantling. This is a social justice movement. Stay focused. Stay well-rested. Stay daydreaming. Stay connected. Stay reclaiming your time. Stay slowing down.”

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