The Power of Naps
Sleep is essential for cognitive and physical repair. When you get a good night’s sleep, you’ve done yourself a really good thing. But from the moment you wake up and throughout the day, your body slowly builds the urge to go back to sleep. Sleep scientists call this phenomenon sleep pressure; as your body’s desire to get back to sleep gets more intense, your ability to perform a variety of tasks gets worse. This is why naps are so important.
Dr. Sara Mednick did a study where she asked participants to complete a cognitive test four times in one day—once first thing in the morning, once mid-morning, once mid-afternoon, and once early evening. It was a rather simple test of pattern recognition in images, but the specifics aren’t important. What is important is that when her research team plotted participants’ performance on the test throughout the day, they could see a linear decline of performance as the day wore on. The participants did better earlier in the day and worse later in the day.
Later, Dr. Mednick ran the same test, asking participants to take naps between the morning tests and the afternoon tests. The research team divided the groups into two and had one group take a short, 20-minute nap and the other group take a longer, 60-minute nap. The results were amazing.
The group that took a short nap performed similarly to the no-nap group on the morning tests, so it seemed the shorter nap correlated to a stop in the downward trajectory. Those who took the longer nap saw their performance levels get back to peak performance.
Dr. Mednick’s team did another study to see how caffeine compares to napping. And for this study, they actually divided participants into three groups. There was a nap group, a coffee group, and a placebo group. The research team ran all of the participants through a series of memory tests in the morning. One group was given a nap, another group got 200 milligrams of caffeine, and another group got what they thought was caffeine, but was actually just a sugar pill.
They found that the nap group performed consistently better than either the caffeine or placebo groups. In fact, caffeine actually hurt performance on some of the tests.
These studies are just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve since discovered that naps at different times of the day have different effects as well. Some naps deliver more REM sleep. Others offer more slow wave sleep. And we’ve debunked some of the common myths about naps, like that naps make it hard to sleep at night or that napping is reserved for the lazy. If you learn how to get good at napping and build it into your overall sleep program, the benefits you receive could be a game-changer.
Tomorrow, we’ll dive deeper into sleep pressure.
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