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Time to take a nap? Sleep scientists say a midday rest is great for your health

You can’t beat coffee for a morning pick-me-up, but as the day wears on, energy levels can slump. To regain your momentum, should you reach for that third latte? Or push through and hope you perk up?

Sleep scientists have a better idea: Take a nap.

A nap is “like a performance-enhancing drug without the drug part”, said Jade Wu, a sleep psychologist and researcher at Duke University. Napping can help you think more clearly, react more quickly, boost your mood and improve your memory, she said.

But a good nap is as much art as science, and can take some practise to master. If you work from home or can find a quiet space at the office, or even if your nap opportunities are limited to weekends or days off, it’s worth experimenting with a midday rest, sleep experts say.


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1. Time it right

The best time to nap is about six to eight hours after you wake up in the morning, said Sara Mednick, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine.

There’s a “natural circadian dip” in early to midafternoon, Dr Wu said, because levels of the stress hormone cortisol and other signals that help keep us alert start to wane then.

Be careful about napping too late in the day or for too long, especially if you struggle with insomnia, Dr Wu said: “That’s like eating a really big dessert before dinner; it’s going to take away from your appetite.”

2. Keep expectations low

You may not fall asleep during your nap – or at least you may not think you have – and that’s okay, Dr Mednick said. We are often “somewhat conscious” in the early stages of sleep, she said, but “it’s still good rest”.

She pointed to a recent study that found that drifting into the lightest stage of sleep – a sort of twilight zone where your mind wanders in a dreamlike way – for even one minute during a 20-minute rest generated more creativity and better problem-solving in young adults.

3. Get comfortable

Settle into a quiet place where you’re unlikely to be interrupted, and put your phone on airplane mode, Dr Wu said. If you’re lucky enough to have an office or access to a nap room, consider keeping a pillow, eye mask and earplugs at work, said Jessica Payne, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame.

Then, try to tune into your five senses to “get out of your head and into your body”, Dr Wu said, and let your breathing slow and deepen. “That allows the sleep to come to you.”


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4. Mind the caffeine

There’s limited evidence that a “coffee nap”, where you consume caffeine just before dozing off, can improve your mood and alertness after you wake up. That might be helpful if you’re preparing to work a night shift; otherwise, Dr Mednick isn’t a fan of this approach. It can backfire if the caffeine keeps you up at bedtime, she said.

5. Keep it short and set an alarm

Dr Payne recommends limiting your nap to about 20 minutes – just enough time to capture the lightest stages of a sleep cycle, which are “still restorative, but easy to awaken from”, she said. A nap this short, even taken later in the day, is also unlikely to interfere with your nighttime sleep, Dr Mednick said.

After 20 to 30 minutes, you’ll enter deeper stages of sleep, and trying to wake up can feel “like pulling yourself out of molasses”, Dr Wu said.

If a 20-minute nap leaves you feeling groggy, it may mean that you’re so sleep deprived that your brain quickly “dives into deep, slow wave sleep”, Dr Payne said. If you have time, you might benefit from a 90-minute nap, which allows for a more complete, restorative sleep cycle, she added. Such naps can be especially helpful for those who need more sleep, like athletes, those who are pregnant, or people trying to compensate for irregular working hours.

However long you plan to nap, set an alarm before you close your eyes, Dr Wu said, so that you can relax and know that you’ll wake in time for the next thing in your day.

6. Rise right

Give yourself a few minutes to wake up, Dr Mednick said, and try to get some sunshine or bright light in your eyes. “That’s a really strong signal for your brain that it’s time to be alert.”

Splashing cold water on your face and neck and moving your body by going for a quick walk or doing jumping jacks can also help, she said.


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7. If you can’t nap, take a pause

Some people have a hard time waking from naps and don’t seem to benefit from them as much as others, Dr Mednick said.

If napping isn’t for you, or if your workplace isn’t conducive to snoozing, consider other ways of letting your brain “go offline”, like going for a walk or doing a short meditation or some deep breathing, Dr Mednick suggested.

“You can’t push yourself at the same level across a whole day.”

By Alice Callahan © The New York Times Company

The article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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