How napping can help your brain


Jan 05, 2015 by James

Napping has a bad reputation. Long held to be the preserve of children and the terminally lazy, napping does not sit well in world where business – and busy-ness – are of prime importance. Perhaps due to this attitude, people in the West are becoming increasingly sleep deprived, and our culture often prevents us from catching up on sleep by taking naps.

In contrast, the siesta is a long-established practice elsewhere in Europe. Now, scientists tell us, it might be time for us to adopt it.


Why nap?

The effects of sleep deprivation on our health, and in particular on our mental processes, are well known. Lack of sleep messes up all manner of internal systems: in studies, subjects who have had around five hours sleep a night for five nights running have been shown to be approaching pre-diabetic states, so much has sleep deprivation disrupted their metabolisms.

Sleeplessness affects weight gain, blood pressure and, perhaps most crucially, cognitive function. That is why drivers who lack sleep are more likely to crash, and sleep-deprived workers in industrial settings have more accidents.

The good news is that napping can help us to overcome these problems. Planned naps have been shown to improve the work performance of doctors and nurses in A&E departments, and the mental performances of first year medical students. Similar results have been shown in studies of airline pilots.

In general, the science tells us that taking naps restores our ability to pay attention, improves our work quality and ability to learn and reduces the number of mistakes that we make. However, in order to maximise the benefits we have to make sensible decisions about the type of nap to take, and when.


Types of nap

There are four types of nap: 

  • Planned napping: this is when you take a nap in anticipation of getting a reduced amount of sleep later. For example, if you have a nap knowing that you are going out that evening and will therefore have less sleep than normal.
  • Emergency napping: this is what you do when you can no longer fight the urge to sleep. If you are doing something dangerous, such as driving, you should definitely find somewhere safe to nap when you feel this way.
  • Habitual napping: a 'routine' nap, such as a siesta.
  • Appetite napping: napping for enjoyment.

According to several studies, the best time to nap is between 1pm and 4pm, any later than this and you risk disrupting your night's sleep. Brief naps (5-15 minutes) bring almost immediate benefits and these benefits last for between one and three hours, whereas longer naps (half an hour or more) produce benefits that may last for several hours. Those longer naps, however, may cause you to wake up feeling groggy and disorientated.

Some experts say that a nap of 90 minutes is ideal, since this is an entire sleep cycle, and gives you considerable cognitive and health benefits with a minimal amount of grogginess.

Due to the nature of sleep cycles, a nap of as little as six minutes can be helpful. It also seems that taking regular naps is more beneficial than making them an occasional event. So perhaps it is time to introduce the siesta to British life, at last?