Nodding Off Nodding Off
Issue 004

Nodding Off

by Sara Mednick Rachel Salomon

April 8, 2007

Can afternoon naps save your life?

When you hear it talked about, you might mistake it for something illicit. Some people will admit to doing it on the weekends, but only under very special circumstances. Others speak in hushed tones as they confess to doing it at work, usually behind locked doors. Should you admit to doing it, there are some who will look at you with fear, confusion, and disbelief, nonplussed that anyone could ever do it-especially not at work.All this over a nap? The word makes you smile when you say it, and conjures up bucolic images of calm. So it seems strange that people would feel such guilt, shame, and shock over a little shut-eye. This reaction is particularly unwarranted now that scientists are discovering more and more evidence to suggest that a midday rest can improve your alertness, cognition, mood, cardiac health, and weight.Why might napping make such an impact? Unless you have been asleep for the past ten years, you know that we, as a culture, are being robbed of our much-needed sleep. We are in the midst of a fatigue epidemic that affects health, safety, productivity, and the bottom line. Sleep loss has been shown to increase our inflammatory and stress responses, which naps can bring back to normal levels. Unfortunately, instead of creating a healthy balance between wake and sleep, we drive ourselves harder. Coffee companies like Starbucks have helped fuel this epidemic, at the same time creating a generation of addicts by boosting the amount of caffeine in their products-sometimes by as much four times the natural amount-increasing our tolerance for the drug so that we constantly need more to get the same high. My studies on the effects of caffeine on a range of cognitive abilities showed that the substance actually deteriorates performance-that the feeling we get from caffeine may be more superficial than substantial.
A little siesta may be a secret ounce of prevention.
It has been scientifically demonstrated that naps as short as five minutes long can improve alertness and certain memory processes. But the timing of naps is as important as their length. Imagine sleeping for just five minutes in the middle of the night and think about how you would feel upon waking. Probably pretty lousy. This is because all sleep is not equal. We are biologically programmed to sleep not only for a long period in the middle of the night but also for a short period in the middle of the day.The first modern evidence for this came from a German doctor named Jürgen Aschoff, who performed studies on sleep habits in the 1960s. He refurbished abandoned World War II bunkers with all the amenities of small one-bedroom apartments, except without any way to tell the time, the date, or even whether it was day or night. Asking his subjects to choose their own schedule for eating and sleeping, Aschoff observed that they generally experienced one large dip in energy in the middle of the "night," during which they would sleep for six to seven hours. Then, roughly 12 hours later, a mini-dip drove them back to bed for a shorter period of sleep. In other words, when people are forced to follow their own internal impulses, the nap quickly reasserts its rightful place in the human behavioral scheme. Aschoff's research is only now being fully realized. As a researcher, I have reported on the benefits of napping for cognition, showing that naps can enhance visual, motor, and spatial skills, in some cases to the same extent as a full night of sleep. In February, an epidemiological study on over 24,000 Greek adults showed that napping can decrease the risk of coronary heart disease. The study noted that occasional napping (once or twice a week for less than 30 minutes at a time) decreased a person's risk for coronary heart disease by 12 percent, but that regular napping (three or more times a week, for 30 minutes or more) decreased risk by a whopping 37 percent. A little siesta may be a secret ounce of prevention-the proverbial apple a day.So, along with taking 30-minute walks, drinking a glass of red wine (preferably from a vineyard in southwestern France or Sardinia), indulging in flavonol-based chocolate, and consuming a Mediterranean diet soaked in antioxidant-rich olive oil, there is now another daily pleasure that can increase our health, productivity, and well-being.Put down that coffee, and take a nap.Mednick is a member of the faculty at the University of California, San Diego, and consults for the military and private business.  She has a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard.   OPTIMUM TIME If you wake up 8 a.m., you should take a nap at 2:30 p.m.LEARN MORE at
Recently on GOOD
Sign up to receive the best of GOOD delivered to your inbox each and every weekday
Nodding Off