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Are Naps Good?

April 02, 2018

Influential nappers

Naps are nothing new! Many important people that have been highly successful leaders in history partook in naps, like Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Dali, just to name a few. Their unusual sleeping habits may have helped them achieve success, especially with regards to the nap, which is the subject of recent research.

Most people consider Albert Einstein a genius but little do most people know that he slept for 10 hours every night. He also took midday naps, which would suggest that plentiful sleep contributed to his superior problem solving ability… Remember that equation that shows that mass and energy are related, anyone? E=MC².

Then there’s famous artist, Leonardo Da Vinci, who engaged in polyphasic sleep and never actually slept for a full night, rather, he took naps. Apparently he Zz’d for a total of five hours a day, taking naps of up to two hours. Da Vinci’s peculiar sleeping style enabled him to micromanage his energy, without any long interruptions to his work schedule.

Another artist, Dali, who painted the famous melting clocks, symbolic of the time-related disorientation that one might feel upon waking up from a dream-state, was an avid twenty minute napper. He napped with a pocket watch in his hand and when he fell asleep, his hand would release the watch, hitting a plate on the floor. The clink would wake him from a momentary slumber, which he believed, revitalized the creativity that was apparent in his many works of art.

The great minds listed here, as well as many others, such as Aristotle, Bill Clinton, Napolean Bonaparte, John F. Kennedy, Thomas Edison, and Margaret Thatcher napped, and in all likelihood benefitted because of it. Fast-forward to the 21st century and there are still some successful people that swear by napping, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been known to doze in the afternoon, as well as Emmy Rossum, who reported taking naps between interviews.

Napping around the world

Napping isn’t limited to the greatest minds in history, nor is it limited to Hollywood celebs - It can also be witnessed across cultures, around the world, and is common practice in many countries, including Spain and Japan, for example. The Spanish are famous for their Siesta, which is a post-lunch nap that is so deeply rooted in tradition that some employers still allocate time for it. Siestas have been shown to be associated with a decrease in damage to the arteries and heart, as well as lowered blood pressure. In Japan, napping in public, called ‘inemuri’, is a display of exhaustion, which is worn like a badge of honor, suggesting hard work. Inemuri helps to alleviate symptoms of sleep deprivation, as well as increase focus, creativity, and productivity, which benefits the Japanese, who sleep less than any other country in the world, on average.

Do we really need naps though?

‘Westernization’ tends to be synonymous with capitalism, shiny cars, McDonald’s, and the standard 9-5 business day, which doesn’t exactly favor naps. Employers that set aside time for their employees to take naps nowadays are few and far between, even in Spain, where the Siesta has roots in their culture. The Siesta, however, still has its merits because studies have shown that sleepiness is a natural midday phenomenon that causes people to lose productivity, whether they continue working or not. In fact, humans experience an afternoon slump that occurs regardless of a big lunch, boredom, a late night, or any other possible excuse that gets used as one tiredly plugs through one’s day. Researchers found that the body naturally releases melatonin and cools down in preparation for an afternoon Zz’s, which happens among healthy individuals who have slept well the night before.

No one knows with absolute certainty, what the adaptive advantage of afternoon sleepiness is, however the most common assumption is that we inherited an evolutionary drive to seek out darkness in the middle of the day, when the UV rays would have been the strongest that would have also been opportune time to snooze. Studies have also shown that the drive to sleep midday is strong, which was proven through experiments in which participants were left in a dark room for 24 hours, and were found to sleep for an average of two hours in the afternoon, in addition to their eight hour sleep at night. Perhaps the Siesta is more than just a break in the day and instead, is an activity that fulfills a need. This is suggested by the fact that people can readily snooze mid-afternoon, as well as the physiological changes that precede afternoon sleepiness.

The benefits of the nap

A short nap that lasts up to twenty minutes promotes working memory because it provides enough time for the body to experience light sleep, which is when sleep spindles occur, that cause information to be moved from short-term memory, in the hippocampus, to long-term storage, in the neocortex. Working memory gets a boost because information is transferred out of short-term memory, which frees up space for storing new information. One study gave participants visual tasks that were either done with naps in between tasks or without naps. The study found that without naps, performance progressively worsened, whereas with naps, performance was maintained. The naps apparently gave the brain the reset it needed to continue performing up to par on tasks that required working memory.

Short naps have also been found to increase activity in the right hemisphere – The creative half of the brain, which suggests that Dali, the famous twenty minute napper, was onto something! Yet, researchers think that the increase in right brain activity might occur because of a transfer of information to long term storage, which contributes, again to working memory and then possibly to creativity.

Long naps not only increase working memory and right brain activity, they also heal the body, increase synaptic plasticity (a.k.a. learning), and improve mood. A two hour nap is enough for the body to go through all of the sleep stages, which includes light sleep that is also achieved with a twenty minute nap, as well as deep sleep and REM. Deep sleep is when the body releases human growth hormone that repairs cells and contributes to muscle building. The mechanisms that enable the brain to facilitate learning during sleep still aren’t 100% understood, however deep sleep and REM are implicated. Some researchers found that these sleep stages strengthened some neuronal connections, and weakened other less important ones, in order for learning to occur. REM may also contribute to a reduction in stress because it shuts off norepinephrine, in order to relax the muscles so that people don’t live out their dreams. A long nap completed at the end of the sleep cycle is ideal because that’s when light sleep resumes, which is when the brain is most equipped to wake up.

The perfect nap

A short nap is an excellent choice for those working in an office that permit it, as well as for students who are studying, as it helps refresh the mind for better focus and greater productivity. The only downside to a short nap is that its benefits are less profound and shorter-lived, compared to a long nap.

A long nap is great for anyone that needs to make up for lost sleep, to prepare for an athletic endeavour, or to learn something complex, since long naps take people through all the sleep stages, which includes, healing of the body and synaptic plasticity. The downside to a long nap is that it can cause grogginess, especially if a person is woken up during deep sleep or REM, as well as its potential to interfere with sleep at night because of the addition of an entire sleep cycle, which can be too much sleep for some.

Most often, people should feel good about napping because it’s a healthful habit that can have performance enhancing benefits, yet it could also be a sign of an underlying health issue if it’s done in an excessive amount. Anyone that’s heavily fatigued on a regular basis may benefit from seeing a health care specialist.

Companies that embraced the nap

Many companies have good reason to incorporate naps to their work culture because of the many health benefits, including that naps give employees the refreshment they need, when they need it. This means that employers are faced with fewer sick days, as well as are more likely to profit from employees that have the capacity to work efficiently. Giants like Google, Uber, Capital One Labs, Ben & Jerry’s, and Nike all agree that napping is an important part of the office culture, whether taken in pods, which are specially designed nap chairs, or otherwise, in napping rooms that have many comfy couches and cushions. It’s easiest for people to work and feel their best when the afternoon lull is satisfied with a snooze, which is how come some of the most successful businesses have incorporated the nap.

Final word

Whether you’re a student that needs a quick Zz’s as a refresher for studying, an athlete that needs a muscle-building Siesta for training, or a distant relative of Albert Einstein that’s solving some complex law of the universe for, well, the universe… Take a small snooze. It’s good for you, so you can feel good about it.

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