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What's Up Magazine

There's a Nap for That

Jan 10, 2011 08:50PM ● By Cate Reynolds

The data is convincing. We are a sleep-deprived nation, over-stuffing our 24/7 schedules with too much work, too many activities, too much stress and too little rest. The average American adult gets a mere 6.7 hours of sleep per night, far less than the recommended 8. Daniel Drobnick of the National Sleep Foundation notes that, “We get about 20 percent less sleep than our ancestors did 100 years ago. We just don’t put a priority on sleep.”

Our American can-do mantra is unequivocal: You snooze; you lose. The image of a worker asleep on the job conjures thoughts of laziness, inefficiency, irresponsibility, and poor health. Yet, one in three of us admits to nodding off at work. Serial nappers (think Charles Shultz’s Peppermint Patty, head back at her school desk, mouth agape, a large “Z” above her head) are the subjects of ridicule and scorn, the worst of all role models. Even the language that we use to describe taking a sleep break reflects our distain— sneak a nap, steal a nap, and caught napping. This prejudice exists despite the fact that admired thinkers such as DaVinci, Franklin, Brahms, Edison, Churchill, Einstein, and Homer Simpson were themselves proponents of the art of napping. (Did Brahms succumb while composing his famous Lullaby?)

It seems these visionaries were merely maximizing their full brain potential. Recent research has found that napping can have profound benefits, including an increase in accuracy and perception, better coordination and motor skills, and enhanced mood and memory. Robert Stickgold, a Harvard sleep researcher, found that “napping makes people more effective problem solvers…and helps people separate important information from extraneous details.”

Most mammals nap during the course of a day, responding to the brain’s natural ebb and flow of energy. We peripatetic humans are also subject to this cycle. Jennifer Wilson of Drexel University compares the pattern to “a 24-hour body clock that winds down once in the afternoon and once at night.” A strategic nap gives us the opportunity to be kind, and rewind. In most work situations, a 20-40 minute nap can be of great benefit. It can restore alertness and enhance performance, reducing mistakes and accidents and improving health. A NASA study of pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap increased performance 34 percent and alertness 100 percent. University of Dusseldorf research found that merely planning to take a nap lowered participants’ blood pressure, and a Greek study suggested that nappers were 30 percent less likely to suffer from a heart attack.

Our “napping windows” are thought to be about 12 hours after our midpoint nighttime sleep. Experts refer to early risers as “larks,” who practice early to bed early to rise. These folks are likely to have their ebb (daily drop in melatonin) around 1 p.m. “Owls,” on the other hand, stay up later and experience their wind down around 3 p.m. Sleep researchers, however, caution that napping within three hours of bedtime interferes with the night’s sleep.

Naps of 60 minutes or more that reach REM (Rapid Eye Movement) can facilitate creativity by transferring information between brain centers. Paul McCartney supposedly composed Yesterday after awaking from such a dream sleep. Salvador Dali reportedly napped with a key in his hand. When the key fell to the floor waking him, he would sketch whatever random image (melting clocks, legs with drawers) that remained in his consciousness. Sara Mednick, who wrote Take a Nap! Change Your Life, sees the workday nap as a key element in human productivity, “similar to meditation, yoga, or exercise.” Some Silicon Valley companies, as well as other businesses, railroads, and airlines have restructured their workdays to include “power naps,” a term coined by Cornell professor James Maas. Visionary designers offer pods and napping nests as extensions of office furniture. Napping centers, like Yelo and MetroNaps in New York City, provide rooms for those who lack such accommodations in their workplace. There is even a “nap app” for the iPhone, called Pzizz, which lulls you into a 20-minute sleep before gently waking you.

It seems that we are finally easing away from nap-prejudice and into nap-appreciation. So, Homer and Patty, rest easy! Your day has come. And that day includes getting some power zzzz’s.

Your Sleep Cycle

  • 20+ minutes (light sleep): Increases alertness, elevates mood, sharpens motor skills.
  • 40+ minutes (deep, slow wave sleep): Enhances memory.
  • 60+ minutes (REM: Rapid Eye Movement): Enables creative thinking and boosts sensory perception.
  • However, anything over 45 minutes can produce “sleep inertia,” a grogginess and disorientation that might last another 30 minutes or more. In order to wake with a “zing” from a catnap of 20-30 minutes, drink a cup of coffee before your nap. Caffeine takes about that long to take effect.

How to Productively Nap

  • Find a quiet place.
  • Lie down if possible.
  • Dim the lights or use a sleep mask.
  • Use a light blanket if your body temperature drops.
  • Eat lightly before napping and let your body use the energy to digest. Weight gain is unlikely from this habit alone.
  • Enjoy yourself.

Ms. Jepsen is a recently retired Anne Arundel County high school teacher who spent 26 years preventing her students from napping.