7 Surprising Benefits of an Afternoon Nap

Woman relaxing in a hammock in the woods

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From boosting memory to lowering blood pressure, a little midday shut-eye is a study in small miracles.

Ah, the afternoon nap. The domain of preschoolers and the leisurely, naps are all too often considered a luxury or a sign of slackery. But in truth, many (many) of us are chronically sleep-deprived and the quickest of naps can do wonders.

As Tony Schwartz, author and chief executive of The Energy Project writes in The New York Times, “No single behavior has more power to influence overall well-being and productivity, I’ve come to believe, than additional sleep, assuming you don’t currently get enough.” He goes on to note that short naps can be a powerful and highly efficient way to temporarily compensate for an inadequate night’s sleep.

Most experts recommend a nap of 10 to 20 minutes, any longer can lead to "sleep inertia" – a deep grogginess that can be hard to snap out of. But how can a mere 15 minutes of daytime slumber really help? Consider the following.

1. Provides a memory boost

In one study, participants who napped regularly for 10-, 20-, and 30-minute periods improved their performance on cognitive tests of memory and vigilance conducted in the subsequent two and a half hours. While those who napped more than 20 minutes suffered from grogginess, the 10-minute nappers experienced an immediate boost in performance. Other studies have shown similar findings.

2. Lowers blood pressure

A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that the “siesta habit” is associated with a 37 percent reduction in coronary mortality, possibly because of reduced cardiovascular stress associated with daytime sleep. While they admit that they don’t know whether the benefit came from the nap itself, a reclined position, or merely just the expectation of a nap, they concluded that this decrease in blood pressure may be why lower coronary mortality has been found in those who take naps.

3. Calms your nerves

A University of Berkeley study found that a 90-minute nap can potentially keep you calm. When study participants were shown faces that expressed anger, fear and happiness at noon, and then again at 6:00 p.m. They found that the subjects were significantly more upset by angry and fearful faces later in the day; but not if they had a 90-minute lunchtime nap in which they experienced REM sleep.

4. Improves alertness

Well it's not much of a surprise here, but nonetheless, the National Sleep Foundation reports that a NASA study on sleepy military pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34 percent and alertness 100 percent. While you may not be driving a rocket ship, the foundation recommends a quick nap before driving your car to reduce the risk of a drowsy driving car crash.

5. Enhances creativity

The mind loves a nap. Daytime sleep can, “enhance creative thinking, boost cognitive processing, improve memory recall and generally clear out the cobwebs," James Maas and Rebecca Robbins, co-founders of Sleep for Success, wrote in The New York Times.

6. Boosts willpower

Things can be tough when you’re tired, especially when it comes to matters of willpower which is often highest in the morning when the brain is fresh. As Psychology Today reports, when you’re sleep deprived, your brain has an especially hard time ignoring distractions and controlling impulses. Their advice? “A mid-day “power nap” can reverse the usual willpower drain from morning to night,” adding that a nap can reduce stress, improve mood, and restore focus.

7. It’s better than coffee

Researchers have found that while longer naps may cause grogginess, they also get in some good REM sleep which is where complex learning and perceptual skills are benefitted. In one experiment, sleep scientist Sara Mednick and her team directly compared caffeine intake (200mg) with napping (60–90 minutes) and placebo on three distinct memory processes: declarative verbal memory, procedural motor skills, and perceptual learning. Overall, the nap improved performance across all three different learning areas, while caffeine impaired (or at least did not benefit) performance.

If you can't nap

Although the benefits of naps are many, not everyone has an easy time of falling asleep in the middle of the day. For those, even just quiet rest or meditation can do wonders. Simple breathing exercises – like breathing slowly and counting your breaths or inhale for a count of three and exhale to a count of six, repeat – can help slow down your brain and can potentially be restorative.

And if you come across resistance from Type-A friends, family or colleagues, repeat the wise words of Tony Schwartz: “In a world of rising demand, rest should no longer be demonized, but celebrated for its intimate connection to sustainable high performance.” And on that note ... it's time for a nap. Zzz.