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The Science of Napping

Napping ain’t easy. It’s a science and like all good science, it can be used for good or for evil. In order to craft the perfect nap – the kind of nap that won’t leave you feeling lethargic or dumbfounded – it’s important to know a little about sleep cycles.

Sleep can be broken down into two broad categories: Non-REM (NREM) sleep and REM, which are further broken down into stages. The length of a nap will determine at what stage you wake. Waking from certain stages will leave you groggy and confused, while others will make you feel refreshed and alert.

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It takes a full 90 to 120 minutes to complete a full sleep cycle. Who’s got that kind of time? Interestingly, one study found that a 10 minute nap created the most impact, since the napper wakes from stage one NREM. Nap for 20 to 30 minutes, on the other hand, and you will wake during slow-wave, stage two NREM sleep, which leaves the brain feeling a little fuzzy. After 30 minutes, the fuzziness will wear off and you’ll have mental alertness comparable to that of our friend who napped for just 10 minutes – except it took you 50 minutes longer.

But the plot thickens. Another study found that those who consistently took 60-minute naps performed better than their colleagues who took 10-minute power sleeps. One reason for this is that the 10-minute group had trouble falling asleep. Inevitably their performance was comparable to that of a person who didn’t nap at all. This study proves that slow-wave sleep is essential.

Modern corporations like Google and the Huffington Post are embracing this idea and installing expensive sleeping pods at headquarters, encouraging employees to sleep during the day. Kind of makes you want to change jobs, doesn’t it?

People who nap frequently have an easier time falling into slow-wave sleep than those who don’t nap regularly. A regular napper is more skilled at falling easily and quickly into the kind of light sleep that will restore alertness and mental clarity.

It’s important to consider all these things, rather than just crawling into bed and hoping for the best. Anyone can achieve a dynamite nap, wake feeling refreshed, alert and eager to face the rest of the day.

5 Tips for the Perfect Nap

1. Be deliberate

Define your nap. Rather than climbing onto the couch the moment your feel sleepy, plan your nap. Decide what time you will nap, how long you wish to nap for and what purpose you would like this nap to serve.

For a boost in alertness, plan to nap for 10 to 20 minutes. If you need to better process stored information, a 60-minute nap will improve your ability to recall dates, places and times. For improved creative, emotional and procedural memory, your best bet is to do a full 90-minute sleep cycle.

2. Avoid early morning and early evening naps

The body expects to be awake at certain times of day. Taking a cat nap at 6 p.m. after a big dinner is counter-intuitive, throwing off your circadian rhythm. Try napping at a turning point in the day: after lunch, before a workout, in between classes. Just makes sure it’s roughly mid day, whatever that means for you.

3. Listen to your body

It’s giving you all kinds of signs. Do you dream during a 20-minute nap? If so, you’re probably sleep deprived and need to rethink your sleeping habits, during both day and night time. For a well-rested person, it takes significantly longer than 20 minutes to fall into the slow-wave sleep, which is followed by REM, the dreaming stage. Do you need a nap five minutes after breakfast? If so, you may have a food allergy your body is trying to fight. Listen and look for answers.

4. Select your napping chair

Yes, chair. Sleeping upright makes it much easier to wake after a nap. Laying horizontally makes it too easy for your body to fall into that deep, slow-wave sleep. Above all, stay out of bed! Remember, your body responds to habit. If you lay down in bed, you’re sending a message to your body that you plan to sleep for a long period of time. If you plan to complete a full cycle of sleep, by all means lay horizontally. Just stay out of bed.

5. Ask yourself why

There’s no shame in needing a nap. Lots of people enjoy them and benefit from them. And yet, just as many suffer from them. Poor eating habits, for example, or unknown food allergies – gluten, in particular – can lead to tiredness in the middle of the day. If you’re dependant on coffee or sugar, you may be needing a nap to combat the inevitable crash that comes after a caffeine or sugar rush.

By all means, nap if it helps you to feel more alert, creative and happy during the day. Just remember there are a lot of things that can help with that. Eating lots of fresh vegetables, shunning processed food and getting regular exercise are just as important to a healthy, happy mind. A little flax oil works wonders before bedtime, improving cell repair and helping you feel refreshed and alert in the morning.

Make your own rules about your sleep schedule. Don’t be complacent. If something isn’t working, it’s only you that can fix it. Most sleep studies agree that quality of sleep depends heavily on the individual. Studies are even being done to test genetic influences on sleep. You are unique – a one-of-a-kind brain in a one-of-a-kind body. Forge your own path. If that means napping, wonderful. If it includes fresh veggies and long walks in the park, even better.

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