Many Americans are chronically sleep deprived. Our busy work schedules, long commutes and countless demands at home don’t leave us enough time for a good night’s rest, let alone daytime breaks. In contrast to other cultures, taking siestas is often associated here with laziness and lax work ethics. We rather push through and, if necessary, fuel up on caffeine and power bars when our energy level goes down.
In terms of productivity, that may be a virtuous attitude, but staying awake all day followed by six to eight hours of slumber is not necessarily “natural” for human beings. In fact, we are in the minority among mammals when it comes to sleep habits. Studies on sleep patterns of animals have found that 85 percent of mammalian species are polyphasic sleepers, meaning they sleep for several shorter periods of time in a 24-hour cycle. Monophasic sleepers like us adhere to two distinct periods of wakefulness and rest. But that may have developed culturally rather than out of biological necessity.
Historically speaking, the idea that we should ideally spend long stretches of uninterrupted sleep is relatively recent. It’s a narrow concept, according to David K. Randall, author of “Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep,” and we don’t even share it with all of the world’s population.
With regards to productivity, there is no guarantee that working longer and harder always produces better results. Some of the greatest achievers in history, among them Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison, insisted on regular afternoon naps.
Even corporate America is discovering the benefits of allowing workers to doze off a bit when they feel sluggish. There is an increased tolerance for napping and other alternative schedules at many of today’s workplaces, says Randall. He names Google as an example where napping is not only permitted but even encouraged because the company believes it promotes creativity.
Health experts agree. “You can get incredible benefits from 15 to 20 minutes of napping” said Dr. Sara C. Mednick, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and author of “Take a Nap! Change Your Life,” in an interview with WebMD. “You reset the system and get a burst of alertness and increased motor performance. That’s what most people really need to stave off sleepiness and get an energy boost.”
Besides restoring alertness and enhancing performance, napping also has a number of psychological benefits. A nap can have similar effects as a mini-vacation or a spa treatment and can provide an easy way to get some relaxation and rejuvenation, according to researchers at the Sleep Foundation.
Especially older people can profit from taking daytime rests, not only for their physical but also their mental well-being. “People who nap generally enjoy better mental health and mental efficiency than people who do not,” says Dr. Andrew Weil, author of numerous best-selling books, including “Healthy Aging” (Knopf, 2005). But, he cautions, the “timing and duration of naps are important: Too much, too often, or at the wrong time of day can be counterproductive.” That is particularly true for seniors who suffer from sleep disturbances that come with aging. Still, napping, Dr. Weil says, is a good way to take care of the body’s need for rest, which increases with age.
To get the most out of your naps, Dr. Mednick recommends to keep them short, about 20 to 30 minutes max; to make them a regular habit and schedule them roughly at the same time; to take them in a place that is protected from light and noise and has a sleep-conducive room temperature, that is slightly cooler than your work environment but warm enough that you don’t freeze.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “The Importance of Sleep for Your Health.”
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.