The Benefits of Napping

Much of the world, but not the United States, embraces the siesta culture. . racorn/Shutterstock

Napping has become a regular part of my life, not because I'm the one catching zzz's, but because my toddler naps every day at 12:30 p.m. Some parents are easygoing about their kids' nap schedules. I am not one of those parents. That's because if my toddler doesn't get his two-hour nap, he turns into a monster by mid-afternoon.

For most kids, napping drops off by age 4 or 5 (some even drop their nap at age 3, bless their parents' hearts). But there is well-documented research that shows that napping can be beneficial well into adulthood. Here's how.

Improved memory. Researchers at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore say napping before a test is just as effective as cramming for it. According to New Scientist:

The team mocked-up a real student experience, and had 72 volunteers sit through presentations of about 12 different species of ants and crabs. The participants were asked to learn all about these animals, including their diets and habitats, for example. After 80 minutes of this, the students were given an hour to either watch a film, have a nap, or revise what they had just learned. After this hour, they had another 80 minutes of learning. Then they had to sit an exam in which they were asked 360 questions about the ants and the crabs.

The napping group got the best scores in the study, researchers said, because sleep allows our brains to comprehend all the things that we learned that day, thus improving memory.

That thought is echoed in Dr. Marc Weissbluth's book, "Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child," which says that while a child is sleeping, his brain is hard at work processing all the things he has learned during the day. "Sleeping well increases brainpower just as lifting weights builds stronger muscles," he writes. There have been numerous studies over the last decade that found that naps can help improve memory and can even help improve problem-solving skills.

Due to research like this, some companies have started encouraging and promoting nap time in an effort to increase employee satisfaction and productivity. At Google, specially designed "energy pods" allow employees to block out light and sound to take a nap. (A friend of mine works at Google; needless to say, he loves it.)

May lower blood pressure. An afternoon snooze may help drop your blood pressure. “Midday sleep appears to lower blood pressure levels at the same magnitude as other lifestyle changes. For example, salt and alcohol reduction can bring blood pressure levels down by 3 to 5 mm Hg,” said Manolis Kallistratos, M.D., cardiologist at the Asklepieion General Hospital in Voula, Greece, and co-author of a 2019 study. Researchers found that for every hour you nap, systolic blood pressure drops an average of 3 mm Hg. They found that a typical midday nap can lower blood pressure by an average of 5 mm Hg. By comparison, taking a low-dose blood pressure drug can lower your level an average of 5 to 7 mm Hg.

“These findings are important because a drop in blood pressure as small as 2 mm Hg can reduce the risk of cardiovascular events such as heart attack by up to 10 percent,” Kallistratos said.

Naps are good for your heart. In a study published in the journal Heart, researchers looked at the napping and sleep habits of nearly 3,500 Swiss adults. They found that those who took one or two daytime naps each week had a lower risk of heart problems, including stroke and heart disease, than people who didn't take naps at all. Daytime naps might make up for insufficient sleep at night, helping to relieve stress and thereby protecting the heart, researchers said.

Helps process subconscious thoughts. A study from the University of Bristol revealed that taking a short nap helps the brain process subconscious information that occurred prior to sleeping. Researchers gave 16 participants a control task and a "masked prime" task, which is a subconscious task. Then, they divided them into two groups — one to stay awake and the other took a 90-minute nap. Those who slept experienced improved processing speeds for the subconscious, masked prime task. Therefore, the researchers concluded that naps can help people process information subconsciously, which could lead to more goal-oriented behavior.

Naps can help restore alertness. Studies performed at NASA involving military pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34% and alertness by 100%. In fact, if you're driving through the night and feel drowsy, the National Sleep Association recommends pulling over, taking a short nap and then getting a caffeinated drink to rejuvenate yourself. (Although you probably didn’t need the National Sleep Association to tell you that.)

A woman reclines on her sofa while watching TV
A power nap can help you unwind after a long day. Alliance/Shutterstock

It can help you relax. Much of the world (excluding the United States, unfortunately) embraces the siesta culture. In many European countries, businesses will close in the middle of the day for a time, allowing everyone to "regroup" before they tackle the afternoon. As a matter of fact, the CEO of The Energy Project, Tony Schwartz, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in which he details the importance of taking frequent breaks (even naps) as a form of "renewal" with which to tackle your work.

Reduced fatigue. A study performed on sleepy night-shift air traffic controllers found that a 40-minute nap (of which 19 minutes were actually spent sleeping) rejuvenated tired controllers. After their naps, air traffic controllers were more alert, and therefore more effective.

Improved mood. This can be said for the toddler I mentioned above, as well for my 99-year-old grandmother. A well-timed midday nap can do wonders for improving your mood. Studies show this one is true too, but you probably don’t need a study to tell you that sleeping feels good.

So now that you know how good napping is for you, how long should your midday siesta be? MNN Blogger Starre Vartan wrote about the ideal nap length; check it out and then get snoozing. If your boss happens upon you during your rest time, just tell him you're prepping for that big meeting later this afternoon.