This article was originally published in the July 2010 issue of Baptist Mid-Mission‘s Family Letter, a publication for missionaries serving God all over the world. Whether missionaries or mothers, we need to remember that we’ll serve God more effectively when we take care of the bodies He gave us.
Some of us live and work in cultures in which a nap— or “siesta”—is an expected part of daily life. Here in the US we may be more prone to look at a midday nap as a sign of weakness or a deficient work ethic.
But a multitude of researchers are shedding new light on the health benefits of napping. We now know that our inborn circadian rhythm includes two periods of intense sleepiness: one at about 2-4 a.m. and another about twelve hours later, in the afternoon. Our physiological clock is located in the area of the brain known as the hypothalamus. Coupled with environmental factors, the hypothalamus may explain why some of us are prone to be like morning larks and others more like night owls. (I readily confess to the latter.)
One study in 2008 compared three ways of getting through the afternoon “hump”: 1) getting more sleep at night; 2) taking a nap; and 3) ingesting caffeine. Of these three, taking a nap worked best.
Sleep has turned out to be a much more complex process than once thought. While the body may be largely at rest during sleep, the brain is quite busy. Based on electroencephalograms, which measure electrical brain-wave activity, we know that sleep involves five different stages:
Stage 1: falling asleep
Stage 2: light sleep
Stages 3 and 4: deeper, slow-wave sleep
REM (rapid eye movement): when dreaming occurs
A healthy night’s rest involves all of these stages, with a full cycle lasting about an hour and a half and repeating itself throughout the night.
The benefits of a nap vary with its duration. A nap of less than 30 minutes consists mostly of lighter, stage 1 and 2 sleep, and in research has shown to improve concentration and motor skills. Even a very brief nap of 6 minutes can improve information retention, promote wakefulness, and enhance learning. Some companies, such as Google, have actually set up “nap pods” for employees.
Longer naps of 45 minutes or more often include stage 3 and 4 sleep and can lead to sleep inertia, or grogginess that can take a little while to shake off. But memory-retention and learning benefits can actually last a few hours. Recent studies at Berkeley suggest that naps move information out of your mental “inbox” and into longer-term storage, allowing room for more incoming information. In short, a nap may actually refresh your memory.
For most situations, a nap of 20-30 minutes works best, but sleeping for even a few minutes can be beneficial. Lying down (it takes about 50 percent longer to fall asleep when sitting up), reducing light and noise, and having the room at a comfortable temperature may help you fall asleep quicker. If you’re prone to grogginess after a nap, drinking a caffeinated beverage immediately beforehand may be of benefit. And you might want to set your alarm clock.
In the past it was thought that napping interfered with nighttime sleep, but this may be true only for those with chronic insomnia.
Getting adequate sleep on a regular basis is still the best way to avoid fatigue and feel your best. But if you are fond of taking a strategic nap or catching a few winks in the afternoon, you find yourself in the ranks of Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Proverbs clearly warns us against slothfulness and sleep-abuse, and irresponsibility in the workplace should not be encouraged. But an occasional well-timed nap can temporarily refresh your productivity, memory, and creativity.
“The sleep of a laboring man is sweet…” (Ecclesiastes 5:12)
For your health,
Joy Anglea, M.D.