Daytime Naps: The Guilty Pleasure That’s So Good For You!
If you’ve ever felt guilty about wanting to take an afternoon nap, that stops here and now.
Napping during the day is good for your body and mind, and can help you do so much more than revive your alertness and energy.
Research shows that midday sleeping can benefit your memory, heart, immune system, blood pressure, weight, creativity and more.
Read on to find out exactly what a little afternoon sleeping can do for you!
Health Benefits of Napping
Napping Revives Your Alertness
Napping sometimes gets a bad rap, as if shut-eye during the day indicates laziness. But some of the brightest minds in history, including Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison, were famously nappers.
And now, a new body of scientific research is showing the benefits of napping, and how a quick bout of sleep can regenerate body and mind.
When you start falling into that mid-day slump, “a short nap interferes with ‘sleep drive,’ that sometimes irresistible feeling that you need to go to sleep, which will wreck concentration and alertness,” says Carl Bazil, MD, director of the Division of Sleep and Epilepsy at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.
By taking the edge off with a nap, you feel restored, and more alert and attentive.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, a NASA study on military pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34 percent and alertness by a whopping 100 percent.
If you’re finding a task such as studying particularly difficult or time consuming, you’ll likely benefit from taking a nap.
Rather than trawling through your work at the pace of a snail, a better use of time may be a nap followed by re-approaching work with a fresh and well-rested mindset.
For students, this can be particularly useful for any self-directed study, like doing required readings, writing essays or preparing for a test.
Napping Benefits Your Memory
Along with this boost in mental function from napping comes an increased ability to retain learned information.
“Napping strengthens the neural connections that form our memories,” says Elizabeth McDevitt, a researcher at the Sleep and Cognition Lab at University of California, Riverside, where she works with famed napping expert Sara Mednick, MD, author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life.
“During sleep, brain areas that were involved in initially acquiring a memory might be reactivated, essentially ‘replaying’ neural activity during sleep.” By doing this, memories are reinforced and moved into long-term storage areas of the brain.
One German study found that subjects were five times better able to recall random word pairs they had learned if they took a nap.
Napping Lowers Your Blood Pressure
“Midday sleep appears to lower blood pressure levels at the same magnitude as other lifestyle changes.
For example, salt and alcohol reduction can bring blood pressure levels down by 3 to 5 mm Hg,” Manolis Kallistratos, a cardiologist at the Asklepieion General Hospital in Voula, Greece, and one of the study’s co-authors, said in a press release.
He added that a low-dose antihypertensive medication usually lowers blood pressure levels by 5 to 7 mm Hg, on average.
Researchers found that for every hour a person naps in the afternoon, their 24-hour average systolic blood pressure decreased by 3 mm Hg.
Systolic blood pressure is the first number and measures the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart beats. So, if your blood pressure is 120 over 80, your systolic blood pressure would be 120.
Napping is Good For Your Heart
Sleep is not only good for your brain—it helps your heart too.
“Sleep has been referred to as a ‘cardiovascular holiday’ because during restorative deep sleep, including naps, there is an overall reduction in cardiovascular output,’” McDevitt says.
Instead, the parasympathetic system, known as the “rest and digest” response, takes over.
One study in Greek men found that those who regularly took a siesta were 37 percent less likely to die of heart disease.
It’s also known that sleep deprivation can lead to heart risks, so it stands to reason that heading off sleepiness with a daytime nap can only be beneficial.
Napping Reduces Cortisol
Cortisol is a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands.
It’s important for helping your body deal with stressful situations, as your brain triggers its release in response to many different kinds of stress.
However, when cortisol levels are too high for too long, this hormone hurts you more than it helps.
Over time, high levels may cause weight gain and high blood pressure, disrupt sleep, negatively impact mood, reduce your energy levels and contribute to diabetes.
Over the last 15 years, studies have increasingly revealed that moderately high cortisol levels cause health problems.
- Chronic complications: Including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis.
- Weight gain: Cortisol increases appetite and signals the body to shift metabolism to store fat.
- Tiredness: It interferes with daily cycles of other hormones, disrupting sleep patterns and causing fatigue.
- Impaired brain function: Cortisol interferes with memory, contributing to mental cloudiness or “brain fog”.
- Infections: It hampers the immune system, making you more prone to infections.
Timing, length and quality of sleep all influence cortisol.
For example, a review of 28 studies of shift workers found that cortisol increases in people who sleep during the day rather than at night.
And over time, sleep deprivation causes increased levels of cortisol.
Timing, length and quality of sleep all influence cortisol.
Napping Helps You Stay Thin
You know when you just can’t resist that sugary mid-afternoon snack? It comes from a natural dip in circadian rhythm at that time that makes you feel tired and look for a pick-me-up.
But if you take a nap, you can help stave off cravings that lead to unhealthy food consumption, and, therefore, weight gain.
There is evidence that sleeping curtails ghrelin and increases leptin, two metabolic hormones that regulate hunger and appetite.
Not sleeping enough—less than seven hours of sleep per night—can reduce and undo the benefits of dieting, according to research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
In the study, dieters were put on different sleep schedules. When their bodies received adequate rest, half of the weight they lost was from fat. However when they cut back on sleep, the amount of fat lost was cut in half—even though they were on the same diet.
What’s more, they felt significantly hungrier, were less satisfied after meals, and lacked energy to exercise. Overall, those on a sleep-deprived diet experienced a 55 percent reduction in fat loss compared to their well-rested counterparts.
Within just four days of sleep deprivation, your body’s ability to properly use insulin (the master storage hormone) becomes completely disrupted.
In fact, the University of Chicago researchers found that insulin sensitivity dropped by more than 30 percent.
Here’s why that’s bad:
When your insulin is functioning well, fat cells remove fatty acids and lipids from your blood stream and prevent storage.
When you become more insulin resistant, fats (lipids) circulate in your blood and pump out more insulin. Eventually this excess insulin ends up storing fat in all the wrong places, such as tissues like your liver.
And this is exactly how you become fat and suffer from diseases like diabetes.
Sleep and Appetite
There’s another likely explanation too. “Individuals who are feeling sluggish during the day due to poor nighttime sleep may be more likely to make poor food decisions, especially if they are looking for an energy boost—they may be more likely to choose sugary food and drinks,” McDevitt says.
Many people believe that hunger is related to willpower and learning to control the call of your stomach, but that’s incorrect.
Hunger is controlled by two hormones: leptin and ghrelin.
Leptin is a hormone that is produced in your fat cells. The less leptin you produce, the more your stomach feels empty.
The more ghrelin you produce, the more you stimulate hunger while also reducing the amount of calories you burn (your metabolism) and increasing the amount fat you store.
In other words, you need to control leptin and ghrelin to successfully lose weight, but sleep deprivation makes that nearly impossible. Research published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinoloy and Metabolism found that sleeping less than six hours triggers the area of your brain that increases your need for food while also depressing leptin and stimulating ghrelin.
You need to control leptin and ghrelin to successfully lose weight, but sleep deprivation makes that nearly impossible.
And it gets worse.
Lack of sleep also pushes you in the direction of the foods you know you shouldn’t eat.
A study published in Nature Communications found that just one night of sleep deprivation was enough to impair activity in your frontal lobe, which controls complex decision-making.
Ever had a conversation like this?
“I really shouldn’t have that extra piece of cake… then again, one slice won’t really hurt, right?”
It turns out, sleep deprivation is a little like being drunk.
You just don’t have the mental clarity to make good complex decisions, specifically with regards to the foods you eat—or foods you want to avoid. This isn’t helped by the fact that when you’re overtired, you also have increased activity in the amygdala, the reward region of your brain.
This is why sleep deprivation destroys all diets; think of the amygdala as mind control—it makes you crave high-calorie foods.
Normally you might be able to fight off this desire, but because your insular cortex (another portion of your brain) is weakened due to sleep deprivation, you have trouble fighting the urge and are more likely to indulge in all the wrong foods.
Lack of sleep also pushes you in the direction of the foods you know you shouldn’t eat.
And if all that wasn’t enough, research published in Psychoneuroendocrinology found that sleep deprivation makes you select greater portion sizes of all foods, further increasing the likelihood of weight gain.
The bottom line: Not enough sleep means you’re always hungry, reaching for bigger portions, and desiring every type of food that is bad for you.
Napping is a Mood Booster
Anyone who’s seen the effects of skipping a nap on a toddler knows that sleepiness increases crankiness—and this goes for adults too.
“When we have a poor night’s sleep, it creates a hormonal neuroendocrine imbalance that contributes to our feeling of tiredness and irritability,” Shane says.
“Napping has been shown to help restore the neuroendocrine system back to levels we have after a good night’s sleep.”
Napping Strengthens Your Immune System
Another of the regenerative benefits of napping may be helping our body ward off invading germs. “Sleep loss impairs immune function, and napping might help restore immune function after sleep deprivation,” McDevitt says.
“One study found that leukocyte counts [white blood cells, which fight infection] were increased following a night of sleep restriction, but a nap followed by a night of eight-hour recovery sleep restored leukocyte levels to baseline.”
The group that was allowed only the nighttime sleep—but not the nap—didn’t show this effect.
Napping Benefits Physical Performance
Napping can help enhance your workout—or even fine-motor skills like piano playing. “The motor system can become fatigued from overuse, leading to slower or less accurate motor performance,” McDevitt says.
“Napping can help alleviate this motor fatigue, restoring speed and accuracy.”
Should you snooze before or after physical activity? Turns out, both have benefits. “Growth hormone levels spike during sleep, suggesting it is an opportune time for muscles and connective tissue to repair itself, so a nap following physical training might help jump-start the process of muscle repair,” she says.
Napping has also been show to improve sprint times in athletes who were sleep deprived, suggesting it might help prepare the body for physical exertion as well. Here are 13 sleep tips for when you have insomnia.
Napping Helps You Focus
You’ve probably had the feeling of your eyes being tired when you need sleep, and you might have even felt like your ears are more sensitive to noise.
“The development of many sensory skills depends on the brain being able to form new neural connections, which might be strengthened and stabilized during sleep,” McDevitt says. “Sleep might also help our systems filter out distracting sensory information that bombards us.”
Your senses can feel fatigue, but a mid-day slumber can give them a restorative rest. This might be especially useful for perceptual skills, like a radiologist spotting tumors in medical images, or differentiating between similar auditory tones, like a musician might do.
Napping Improves Your Creativity
Napping can boost your performance in general—but it can specifically bolster your creativity.
“When a computer stops working well because it is overloaded with too many open files, rebooting it clears away the clutter and the computer functions better,” Dr. Shane says.
“When you nap or sleep, that ‘reboots’ your brain, clearing away the clutter.”
This may help explain why when you “sleep on it,” even for a short nap, you suddenly have solutions and new ideas.
A recent study found that the brain’s right hemisphere, which is associated with creativity, was active during naps, while the left remained quiet. Dr. Shane says that longer naps, which allow people to enter to the dream REM state, have helped performance on creative problem-solving tests. This boost might be why Google has installed “nap pods” for their workers.
The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It
If you have sleep problems and want to fix them, you need to really understand what’s going on with your sleep—both what your problems are and how to solve them.
The Sleep Solution is an exciting journey of sleep self-discovery and understanding that will help you custom design specific interventions to fit your lifestyle.
Drawing on his twenty-four years of experience within the field, neurologist and sleep expert W. Chris Winter will help you:
• Understand how sleep works and the ways in which food, light, and other activities act to help or hurt the process
• Learn why sleeping pills are so often misunderstood and used incorrectly—and how you can achieve your best sleep without them
• Incorporate sleep and napping into your life—whether you are a shift worker, student, or overcommitted parent
• Think outside the box to better understand ways to treat a multitude of
conditions—from insomnia to sleep apnea to restless leg syndrome and circadian sleep disorders
• Wade through the ever-changing sea of sleep technology and understand its value as it relates to your own sleep struggles
Dubbed the “Sleep Whisperer” by Arianna Huffington, Dr. Winter is an international expert on sleep and has helped more than 10,000 patients rest better at night, including countless professional athletes.
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