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We know what you’re thinking: Who has time for a nap? But we need to forget the idea that taking a mid-afternoon siesta is the numero uno sign of laziness. Nor are naps only okay for the sick, the super young, or the very old. Check out the various aspects of your mental and physical health even a short nap can improve, and we promise you’ll stop feeling guilty about taking a snooze while the sun is still shining:
Sleep promotes changes in the brain that help you store memories; learn something right before you hit the sack at night and you’re more likely to retain it. (Maybe there was something to sleeping with your high school chemistry book under your pillow?!)
The same seems to be true for napping. A team of German neuropsychologists found that taking a nap after learning something can make your memory of that information five times better than if you had stayed awake after learning it. Research published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found older adults who napped for 30 to 90 minutes after lunch had better word recall—a sign of good memory—than those who did not nap or who napped for longer than 90 minutes.
Naps not only help root newly learned information in the brain and improve memory recall, they can also boost your capacity to learn, says Michael J. Breus, PhD, clinical psychologist and sleep expert. One study found that taking a 60- to 90-minute nap can help you learn just as well as a full night’s sleep. In another study, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, had participants do a rigorous learning task. Half the group then took a 90-minute nap. Later that day, the participants performed a new round of learning exercises. Those who didn’t nap became worse at learning; those who napped did better on the later test and actually improved their capacity to learn, according to researchers.
Just 20 minutes of napping is all you need to make you more alert and perform better for the rest of the day, according to the National Sleep Foundation. A short snooze will also improve your mood. Early research from the University of Michigan found that after waking up from a midday nap, people were less impulsive and more able to tolerate frustration, which suggests that naps may help you better regulate your emotions and elevate your mood. Got a standing afternoon conference call that tends to make you grumpy? A nap right beforehand might help lengthen your fuse for work colleagues who love to hear themselves talk.
When you find yourself stuck in a brainstorming rut, sleep on it. (These other hacks can help boost creativity at work.) Research shows there’s a boost of activity in the right side of your brain when you nap. That’s the part that controls creativity and insight. (The left side is more suited to logic and analysis.) In one 2012 study, researchers had study participants wear caps with near infrared technology to monitor the movement of blood in their brains, Dr. Breus describes in his book, The Power of When. The researchers discovered there was more back-and-forth communication between the subjects’ right and left brain hemispheres while they napped than while they were awake, which may allow you to make better mental connections.
You may have heard that skimping on sleep can dampen your immune system, possibly making you more vulnerable to infections like colds. A small study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that a short nap can help reduce stress and strengthen the immune system in people who are sleep-deprived. Researchers found that after study particiants got only two hours of sleep, levels of stress-related hormones increased and those of a disease-fighting protein decreased. But after people napped, the levels returned back to normal.
"Napping may offer a way to counter the damaging effects of sleep restriction by helping the immune and neuroendocrine systems to recover," study author Brice Faraut, PhD, of the Université Paris Descartes-Sorbonne Paris Cité in Paris, France, said in a press release. "The findings support the development of practical strategies for addressing chronically sleep-deprived populations, such as night and shift workers."
Naps can help improve something called cognitive flexibility, explains Dr. Breus—that’s your ability to switch or shift between thinking from one concept to another and be able to adapt to new information. Being flexible is critical to judgment and decision making, says Dr. Breus. Research also suggests that even if you’re well-rested, a nap can help how well you reason logically.
How often do you wish you could quit a workout class in the middle because you’re just too dang tired to stick out the whole thing? Naps may deliver the jolt of physical performance improvement you need. One small study had 10 healthy men do a series of sprints before and after a post-lunch nap. Speed, strength, and reaction times improved for those who snoozed.
Preeti Parikh, MD
Review date: May 9, 2018