The Science of Naps

By Staff Writer Published on August 15, 2017

Napping is for slackers. At least, that’s what we’ve always been told. Some days, though, it can be hard to fight that early afternoon slump. So does that mean we’re all just lazy at heart, or is there something more to it than that? Is catching 40 winks really so bad?

As it turns out, there’s a lot of scientific evidence to suggest that not only are naps harmless, they’re helpful. The right nap at the right time can actually improve memory, creativity, and coordination. They make us more capable and productive, and some astute businesses are capitalizing on them. This includes Google, Apple, and nearly the entire nation of Japan. It’s gone as far as public napping facilities (at least in the latter’s case).

So if you find yourself always reaching for the caffeine after lunch, consider reaching for a pillow instead. Don’t believe us? Just keep reading.

The Need for Sleep

Humans have a strange relationship with sleep. We need it, and almost universally we want it, but so few of us are getting as much as we should. Despite recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation that we get seven to nine hours of sleep a night (depending on individual needs), many of us are getting less than six on average.

The fact of the matter is that sleep does a lot for us. It gives our brains a chance to do some housekeeping and consolidate memories. It gives our bodies a chance to repair tissue, grow muscle, synthesize hormones, and so forth. Perhaps most importantly, sleep makes us less tired, which is critical for making it through the day without behaving like a cranky toddler.

Even when we are getting a full-night’s rest, we’re still programmed biologically to take a nap in the early afternoon. Our bodies naturally slow and often produce melatonin between 1 and 3 p.m. It’s an evolutionary holdover, like the appendix, and people who can wiggle their ears. That doesn’t make it any less potent, though.

That’s why naps are so important—they give us a little taste of what nighttime has to offer us, keeping us up and running through the afternoon and evening at 100 percent. Without naps, we may struggle with decreased motivation, creativity, patience, mental clarity, and motor function, none of which is good for business.

“Wait a minute,” you may be saying, “I always wake up from naps more tired than when I shut my eyes. What’s up with that?” It’s a valid concern and one that has to be addressed if you intend to get the most out of your naps.

Choosing the Right Nap Length

Sleep is divided into five different stages, based on what our bodies are doing while unconscious:

Stage one is when we’ve only just slipped into sleep, and we’re still largely susceptible to external stimuli. Being woken from this stage usually leaves us feeling like we haven’t slept at all. We’re still shutting our brain off during this stage, so it doesn’t provide many benefits, and being disturbed usually leaves us upset about “just shutting our eyes.”

Stage two is when we’re engaged in light sleep, and naps up to 30 or 40 minutes in length spend most of their time in this stage. Stage two is restful, but it’s easy to wake us, making it perfect for catnaps. It allows us to shed some sleep pressure (that building need to sleep), reclaim some mental clarity, and even boost motor function. The best part is, you’re not groggy when you wake up, meaning you can get right back to work. To benefit from this stage, aim for naps about 20 to 30 minutes long, and no longer than 45.

Stages three and four are deep sleep. If you’ve ever had a night where you’ve slept through car alarms, sirens, or a Michael Bay film, you were in stage three. It’s an important part of sleep and helps us deal with most of our physical and mental weariness, but there’s a catch. During this stage, our body releases a chemical that “disconnects” our brains, allowing us to dream freely, without accidentally acting out those dreams with our bodies. It’s a cool safety feature, but it leaves us groggy if we’re woken from this stage without a chance to finish.

This is usually how long people are napping when they say they wake up more tired than before, as the disconnected brain leaves us with reduced motor function and coordination, more drowsy, and increases our sleep pressure. You start slipping into stage three at about the 45-minute mark, which is why you want to keep cat naps short.

You can avoid stages three and four on the other side as well, though, by sleeping longer. If you missed a little sleep the night before, or if you’ve been building up a sleep debt, you can help offset some of that deficit by sleeping for at least 90 minutes. This allows you to complete stage four and enter stage five, or REM sleep. This is where most of our dreaming happens, and the “disconnect” hormone isn’t as fresh in our system. That means waking from this stage is easier, and since we’ve slept through deep sleep, we’ve actually rested. What’s more, REM sleep helps boost creativity and mood, leaving us more engaged in our activities (especially if they are also of a creative nature).

The key to napping is to avoid waking up during that deep sleep redzone. Like playing reverse blackjack, you want to avoid the danger area of about 45-90 minutes. Doing so ensures that you can return to what you were doing easily, and with improved functionality.

Napping Tips

Once you’ve determined how long you plan on napping, you need to be prepared to optimize your time. It doesn’t do you any good, for instance, to give yourself half an hour to shut your eyes, only to find that you didn’t start slipping into sleep for the last five minutes. So here are some tips to help you make the best of your precious mattress minutes.

1. Set an Alarm

As mentioned above, avoiding waking during stage three and four is key, and that’s where an alarm comes in handy. Whether you’re using a portable clock or the clock app on your phone, be sure you set it to wake you either before or after deep sleep, so that you don’t wake up with “sleep inertia.”

2. Set the Mood

Like a romantic evening, most of us have to be in the mood to sleep (even if not, it certainly helps). So be sure you create an environment that promotes your brief rest. Choose a place that’s safe and where disturbances will be minimal. Make it dark by turning off lights and closing blinds or, if you aren’t privileged with control over the light in the room, use a sleep mask.

When you can, lie down in a comfortable position with a cozy pillow. Using a light blanket can help keep you comfortable, without making you so warm you slip into deep sleep unintentionally.

Simulate as best you can the peaceful environment of your own bed at night. It will help you sleep faster, and maximize the benefits.

3. Control Noise

Our biology has built us to pay attention to external stimuli even when we’re trying to sleep, so it can be hard to tune out ambient noise come nap time. Do what you can to counteract adverse conditions. Finding a quiet place is best, but it’s not always an option, so use earplugs if you need to.

White noise machines and apps are also a good idea, as is quiet, peaceful music (whether using earphones or not), as they not only inhibit unwanted sounds but also quiet noisy thoughts, allowing you to shut your brain off and sleep faster.

4. Stick to a Schedule

If your schedule can accommodate it, make naps part of your daily routine. This will teach your body to begin releasing melatonin at your appointed nap time, rather than fighting that biological impetus. That means you’ll be nodding off faster, with less fussing and fidgeting.

5. Watch Your Caffeine Consumption

If you’re inclined to use caffeine in one of its many forms to boost wakefulness, be sure you coordinate it with your nap time for best effect. It usually takes about 20 to 30 minutes for caffeine to kick in, so drinking a soda or a cup of coffee before taking a nap of that length can have a cumulative effect, with the drug kicking in just as your alarm goes off. This is a technique known as “caffeine napping.”

6. Don't Nap Too Late

Just as the length of a nap is critically important, so is the time of day. Sleeping too late can make it hard to sleep at night—especially for insomniacs. The best time is the early afternoon, typically between one and three p.m., though exact times will depend on whether you’re a morning lark or a night owl, with the larks and owls among us benefiting from earlier and later naps, respectively.

If you think you could benefit from a nap in the afternoon, but think your current schedule is preventing you from enjoying this privilege, maybe it’s time to set your sights higher.