What’s a power nap? We’ll start by painting you a picture.
It’s 3 pm in the afternoon. You’re at work and starting to feel that much-maligned midday sleepiness. Maybe you slept a full 8 hours last night. Maybe you were out with friends (aka watching Netflix alone) and your snooze was less than ideal.
Either way, you’re losing focus fast and know it’s probably best to avoid another cup of coffee this late in the day. At this point you might wonder, “could I fit in a power nap?”
The idea of the power nap is attractive: getting the refreshing benefits of sleep in just 15-20 minutes. You might wake up feeling energized, you might wake up even more exhausted than before. So, how do these naps actually affect your body and mind?
Read on to explore what science has to say about the power nap.
Science says: napping is generally good, but you must be smart about it
Scientists are pretty much unanimously on board with the idea that napping is good for you. The simple reason for this is that naps are a really efficient way to catch up on the specific type of sleep that your body needs at any given time. There are even apps to help you nap.
Let’s take a quick detour.
When we snooze, our body moves through many different stages of sleep. This is known as the sleep cycle. At each stage in the cycle, our bodies and brains are doing slightly different things. It is only by spending a certain amount of time in each part of the cycle that we accrue the total benefits of sleeping. It takes a village, after all.
Usually, there is a specific rhythm to the way we move between each stage of the cycle. When we get a healthy amount of sleep, we split our time between stages in the way nature intended. But, when we don’t get the best sleep, we can easily find ourselves missing out on one particular type of sleep.
Back to the point, napping is great because when we do it our body seems to snap very quickly into the exact type of sleep we need the most. That makes it an efficient way to snatch back what we’re missing, without having to commit several hours to a more normal progression through the sleep cycles.
There are a few downsides to napping. If you’ve ever woken up in the morning and momentarily forgotten everything about who and where you are, you are familiar with one of them: sleep inertia. This is the grogginess you feel after sleeping deeply, and will absolutely experience it after a serious nap. Reckless napping can also make it more difficult for you to have a healthy 7- to 8-hour sleep cycle at night. But these things can be managed with a little bit of planning.
There are different types of naps for different purposes
All of that being said, research points to all naps providing the following benefits:
- Feeling less sleepy (duh)
- Increased alertness
- Improved cognitive functioning
- Improved mood
- Enhanced short-term memory
- Improved psychomotor functioning (activities such as driving a car or playing an instrument)
On the one hand, these benefits last longer the longer your nap lasts. On the other, you will also experience increased sleep inertia with longer naps. Sleep researchers have worked out a few broad categories of naps that are good for different reasons.
- The all-night prepper: If you have plans that are going to keep you up all night, a 1- to 2-hour nap can help you feel awake for up to 24 hours. However, you will feel extremely groggy when you wake up for quite some time. Plan this type of nap with caution!
- The in-betweener: If you want the benefits of napping for the next 12 hours, try napping for 30 to 45 minutes. You will feel a little bit groggy, but recover quickly and stay energized for some time.
And, finally, the reason you’re here!
- The power nap: A 5- to 20-minute nap will give you the benefits of napping for up to three hours without inducing serious sleep inertia. This is a great way to make it to the end of your day without feeling out of it for too long after you wake up.
The power nap is absolutely a real thing, and definitely a great tool to keep in your back pocket. With just 5 to 20 minutes, you can get back a nice little chunk of the restorative properties of sleep without giving up too much of your time or feeling like you got a concussion upon waking up.
How to have the perfect power nap
Now that you are enlightened on the science of power napping, here are a few tricks to have the best possible power naps no matter where you are:
- Time your power nap according to your sleep schedule: We all feel the afternoon sleepies at different times. For early risers, this is around 1 to 2 pm. For night owls, it might be a little later. Either way, this window of time is the best opportunity to cut down on the time between closing your eyes and drifting off to sleep.
- Create a good nap environment: Choose a place where you can lay down comfortably, ideally not in the same place where you sleep at night. Make sure that it is dark, slightly cool, and not too loud. You can achieve a semblance of peace and quiet in the office with earplugs and a sleep mask without too much effort.
- Carve out time to not be disturbed: Make sure no one will contact you during this time, and that you can put off any responsibilities for the time you are asleep. This will help you have peace of mind, and allay the anxieties that sometimes make it hard to drift off.
- Try drinking coffee right before: This might seem counterintuitive, but since your power nap should last about the same amount of time that it takes caffeine to hit your system, drinking coffee right before you sleep can help you wake up naturally and quickly battle the effects of sleep inertia.