If you left behind your nap mat when you left kindergarten, it may be time to unroll this healthy habit again. Naps may seem like toddler territory, but a well-timed nap can be restorative. A simple nap can help you avert afternoon energy slumps better than caffeine. It can also increase your alertness, elevate your mood, and improve your memory.
Warm temperatures and food can lull you into that classic sleepy afternoon mood, but there may be something about our bodies' sleep cycle that makes a nap so essential. As we flow through each day's asleep-awake cycle, we reach peaks and dips of energy. Like most mammals, humans experience two periods of forceful, persuasive sleepiness: around 2-4 am and then again at 1-3 pm. Sound like a familiarly dozy time of day?
Sleep stretches out across 5 distinctive stages. A nap allows you to grab some of the benefits of the sleep cycle without committing to a full 8 hours. Keep in mind, though, that a nap is not a substitute for getting a good night's sleep.
Stage 1: Stage one encompasses those first 5 to 10 minutes of sleep, when your eyes close and you begin your descent into slumber. This is the time in which if someone were to wake you, you might look up and ask, "Was I asleep just then?" Catch even a super-quick nap, and you're still likely to improve your chances of remembering something you just learned or memorized.
Stage 2: Stage two finds you 20 to 30 minutes or so into sleep, preparing for deeper sleep. It is during stage two that your heart rate slows down, your body temperature decreases, and your muscles progressively become more relaxed. It's here that you'll hit the pinnacle of the so-called "power nap". A nap of about 30 minutes can offer you the boost of energy and concentration you need to get through the rest of the afternoon.
Stages 3-4: Should you sleep into the 45-minute range, you float into slow-wave sleep. This deep, enveloping sleep state bolsters your declarative memory, the ability to remember facts and explain them. But waking from this deeper sleep can wrap you in a bleary, disorienting cloud that's tough to emerge from. To avoid this sleep inertia, save this kind of deep nap for when you're unwell or just really need to rest.
Stage 5: Once you doze into the 90-120 minute range, you're in the realm of dreams and rapid eye movement (REM). Your heart rate and respiration will pick up again, too. This sort of mega-nap can help to make up for some lost sleep and improve your procedural memory, the ability to remember how to perform tasks.
It's not easy to find a time or place for a nap in the 9-to-5 lifestyle. Some offices are becoming more siesta-friendly, setting aside a room for catching a few winks or dimming the lights after lunch (hey, it's sleep-friendly and eco-friendly!) Sleep salons have also emerged in some cities, offering specially designed chairs or sleep-pods in which customers can relax and receive a massage before they doze off.
Tips for taking a good nap may sound like common sense, but some you may not have thought of:
- Best nap length: Keep your nap short, roughly 10 minutes or so. Naps for longer than half an hour will make it harder for you to wake up and resume your daily activities.
- Best position: Well, of course, a reclined position works best. If you're not able to make it to a bed or a couch, it is possible to nap sitting up; it just might take twice as long to fall asleep.
- Best slumber surroundings: You want a spot that's dimly lit, safe, quiet, and just a bit on the warm side – but not so warm that you slip into a too-deep sleep. Sleep masks offer that bit of darkness you need, as well as gentle pressure to relax tense muscles around the eyes.
- Best state of mind: Set a nap intention, such as "I will relax into a 10-minute nap." Allow yourself to disconnect your thoughts for a few moments, breathing deeply and steadily. Set an alarm for yourself so you don't snooze beyond your nap goal. Most cell phones and MP3 players have an alarm function.
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