Donders Wonders Blog

The power of power napping

This post is also available in Dutch.

Daytime napping has the potential to improve our daily lives, but how exactly does a short power nap benefit us?

What are the benefits of daytime napping?
Often called a “power nap”, a short nap during the day can counteract lack of sleep or disruption of nighttime sleep, restore wakefulness, and promote cognitive performance and learning. Interestingly, napping for as short as 10 minutes is enough to produce these benefits, although just for a few hours. Positive effects of napping are seen across all age groups after a normal night’s sleep, as well as after a night of sleep restriction.

Are there also downsides to daytime napping?
Long daytime naps can potentially lead to a temporary period of reduced alertness, impaired cognition and deterioration of mood soon after waking. This is especially the case when awakening from deep sleep. Also, longer and frequent naps could possibly reduce the quality of nighttime sleep or make it more difficult to fall asleep at night.

How do I make sure to avoid the downsides of power napping?
Napping, if done right, has only a minimal effect on nighttime sleep. In order to avoid impaired sleep continuity and sleep quality during the night, a power nap should not last more than 30 minutes. In particular, long naps could lead to the aforementioned decline in cognitive performance, loss of productivity and grogginess for a short period after waking, so it’s important to not nap for too long during the day. Additionally, studies suggest that the body and mind can be trained to awaken quickly after a short nap to increase the benefits of brief sleep; therefore, those who regularly nap might benefit the most. Moreover, the most favorable time for a nap seems to be early afternoon as daytime arousal levels usually decline around this time and sleepiness often occurs after lunch.

How does such a short nap promote cognitive functioning?
Although, it is not yet clear how exactly these positive effects come about, a group of researchers from Australia was able to show that the process of sleep onset is likely to play a role. They showed that alertness can be increased following as little as 7–10 minutes of sleep. However, as only such a brief period of sleep is required to produce rapid improvement, they assume that the underlying mechanism is part of the switch from wakefulness to sleep. Therefore, the following theory was developed: There are “wake-active” cells (i.e., cells that fire only during waking and are silent during sleep), which continuously get input during the day. At some point, these cells receive enough input and become saturated. That means they have trouble keeping up firing in response to new input and we begin to feel fatigued. During sleep onset, the wake-active cells are inactivated, which results in the rapid decline (within minutes) of the cell’s saturation. Afterwards, when awakening occurs, the wake-active cells are almost fully de-saturated and can again cope with new input, thereby increasing alertness.

So the next time you can’t concentrate at work, you have a really good excuse to take a power nap because — if done correctly — you’ll end up boosting your own productivity.

Written by Eva, edited by Christienne.

Featured image by Pxhere (CC0).

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