“Naps and girls are two things you intensely disliked as a child, and can’t get enough of now,” quipped the NPR host of “Wait. Wait. … Don’t Tell Me!” Of course, most men would agree.
How are naps faring in our modern 24/7 plugged-in society? Do you even know where you left your nap-blankie? That may be saying something.
Naps are decidedly un-American. We are doers, not nappers. We are a nation of Type A, overachieving manic individuals with (5-hour) energy to spare. We don’t need a nap; just give us another cup of coffee!
Despite our forced smiles, bravado and eternal youth, heart attacks remain the No. 1 cause of death in this country. We just might need to slow down a bit; perhaps naps deserve a re-examination.
My introduction to naps was at the hands of some black-belt-level nappers – true masters. Back before the drug wars disturbed the ambience, I regularly flew down to Baja, Mexico and did a little charity work in a dirt-floored clinic (it’s a wonder that tetanus wasn’t the national past-time).
After seeing most of the population of Baja in the morning, we sat down to an immense lunch. And after lunch there was the mandatory siesta, which is a sacred rite. It wasn’t just us on nap time – the whole town closed down. You simply could not transact business between noon and 3 p.m.
Refreshed from a siesta, everyone was back to work and often went strong until 9 or 10 at night. To an impatient American, siesta seemed like truly madness; and they no doubt thought the same of me.
There is actually some science to napping. This came about quite naturally. After decades of research into innumerable arcane (dull) subjects, sleepy scientists discovered, much to their surprise, that they felt better after a nap.
Now this might not be exactly the intellectual leap of discovering penicillin in mold, but science is where you can find it. And there has been a veritable juggernaut of nap research ever since.
The power nap is the most documented. We know sleep goes through regular cycles, lighter stages progressing into deep sleep. If your nap ends while in deep sleep, you wake up disoriented – the classic “where am I?” feeling.
If you wake up still in the first two lighter stages of sleep, you feel refreshed and good. A 20 to 25 minute nap usually is just about perfect. You have measurable improvement in alertness, productivity and mood. This post-nap boost more than makes up for the loss in work output during napping.
Memory has been intensely studied by neuroscientists; we all could use a little more mental RAM these days. They have designed studies that manipulate sleep and nap schedules, and the subjects did regular tests of memory, coordination and response time. All were improved and most significantly a nap helps with memory formation almost as much as a full night’s sleep.
The multi-taskers among us (MTs raise your hands) are particularly helped by an afternoon nap. Information overload is reversed and post-nap performance can reach the peak levels of the day.
Napping also has cardiovascular benefits. In the time between lying down to nap and actually falling asleep, the blood pressure and pulse drop significantly, and remain low through the duration of the nap. This is a brief part of your day, but has a disproportionate benefit to your health.
Napping could change your life. If your excuse for not getting up early and getting some exercise is fear of wearing yourself out, here’s your answer. And if you eat a fast-food lunch for lack of anything better to do, then skip the Big Mac and take a nap instead.
I may have to add siesta time to my clinic schedule (in Scottsdale, Arizona). I could ask patients to assess pre-nap vs. post-nap – when did they receive the best care? Then we have ourselves a real scientific study!
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing Clinical Occupational Medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
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