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The Science of a Good Nap

1 JANUARY 2022

For a society constantly trying to over-extend, over-perform, and over-deliver, skipping out on sleep may be seen as the ultimate badge of productivity.

It's a lifestyle we most associate with the rich and powerful of the world, not to mention the hustle-drunk tech bros of Silicon Valley – but it's not even a new thing. Even the infamous inventor Thomas Edison was so consumed by his need to stay productive, he often attempted to sleep just a few hours per night.

 

But is it actually true that sleeping less than eight hours per night leads to more? More success, more productivity, more wealth?

It's really not that simple, nor healthy.

"In the last 10 or 15 years or so, there have been studies showing that your metabolism and your immune system are quite affected by sleep deprivation," sleep loss researcher Siobhan Banks from the University of South Australia tells ScienceAlert.

"Your ability to appropriately metabolize foods, your ability to fight infection, many physiological processes are impacted. People who have prolonged periods – many years – of short sleep are at much higher risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers."

That's on top of the short-term disadvantages like memory problems, reduced reaction times, and fatigue, which most of us have probably experienced after a bad night's rest.

Importantly though, there are ways to stop or at least limit sleep deprivation – and it isn't just having an eight-hour sleep in one solid block.

The power of the nap

As the 'sleepless elite' try new and different ways to hack the way we sleep, you end up with some weird sleep schedules – some likely more successful than others.

In 1943, for example, an article in TIME magazine suggested a method of sleep invented by Richard Buckminster Fuller, whereby he slept two hours a day in thirty-minute blocks. Apparently, he kept this up for two years before his colleagues got annoyed at his schedule and he had to stop.

 

As a sleep loss researcher, Banks investigates how lots of different people sleep; her work deals with minimizing some of the sleep issues arising for those working in shift work or other low-sleep environments.

There are plenty of 'polyphasic sleep' schedules such as Fuller's, with variations on the same theme: sleep less, but in more frequent doses.

While Banks explains these are probably not going to work too well in the long term – since you're still only getting a few hours of sleep over 24 hours – they do have one thing going for them. Naps.

"There is some evidence that you don't necessarily need to get all your sleep in one big chunk," says Banks.

"For a lot of operational environments, people might get a main sleep where it's four or five hours, and then they might be supplementing with a one- or two-hour nap in the afternoon. That seems to be a way that you can sort of 'hack' your sleep."

Sure, naps can have cool names and you can use special strategies – call it a 'power nap', if you like – but the length doesn't really matter. The bottom line is that people who aren't sleeping enough should be napping more.

 

However, we can't subsist on naps alone. Our brains do require at least one lengthier sleep cycle per night to keep everything ticking along. That's because there's a basic 'anatomy' to our nightly sleep, consisting of two main components: rapid eye movement or REM sleep, and non-REM sleep.

Non-REM sleep is further broken down into three stages. Stage one is when you are just transitioning to sleep, and only lasts a couple of minutes. Stage two is a light sleep where your body temperature drops and eye movement stops; at the beginning of the night this goes for 10-25 minutes, but lengthens the longer you sleep. Stage three is slow-wave sleep, which occurs mostly in the first half of the night. This is the kind of sleep you need to have to be refreshed in the morning.

All of these different sections are important for different reasons, but stage three especially is thought to be involved in the restoration and recovery of the brain, as well as the maintenance of sleep more generally.

Most importantly, this whole thing only lasts about 70 to 120 minutes per cycle, so even with four or five hours of sleep, you are getting all the components needed for a good rest. Small naps can then help to complement this larger sleep period.

 

Care for a nappuccino?

If a plain nap just isn't doing enough for you, Banks does have another hack up her sleeve, one that will be especially exciting for coffee enthusiasts.

"One of our team published a paper last year on the 'nappuccino'," she tells ScienceAlert. "It's basically having a coffee before you have a nap."

Why does this work? Along with other physical effects, caffeine blocks a compound called adenosine from accumulating in our brains. Adenosine reduces the brain's firing rate, and helps us get to sleep; then, once we do sleep, it's whisked away to start the day (or afternoon) afresh.

So, coffee and sleep together makes you wake up even more refreshed than either alone. Banks loves coffee, and sees it as the easiest sleep hack we all have access to.

"It's a little bit boring in terms of a hack, but there are ways to more strategically use caffeine," she says.

"The average person has a big cortisol spike – a stress hormone – in the morning to get us going. That's a very normal thing. So, we actually don't need to have coffee first thing in the morning, but people want to have it because they feel a little bit sluggish."

Instead, having caffeine in the late morning would help you get through the afternoon, without keeping you awake throughout the night.

As with many other variable traits within our species, some people also just get lucky with their genetic sleep lottery.

"There is a big range – some people need more and some need less. There are some people who naturally can get by with a much shorter amount of sleep," says Banks. You can think of it like a spectrum, similar to normal ranges in height or weight.  

"Now, those politicians that say they could get by on just a couple of hours sleep, I don't believe them. I think that maybe they're catching up on their sleep through naps or maybe being asleep in Parliament."

Again it all comes down to naps... even while making decisions for the nation. 

Of course, getting less sleep and chugging coffee aren't just about maximizing productivity. Some people have insomnia or anxiety around sleep, and knowing that your health is incurring damage without the right number of hours is unlikely to help quieten the voices in one's head.

So it's reassuring to know that once you do get back to a normal sleep schedule, the brain has a surprising ability to bounce back – and many of the problems associated with sleep deprivation do actually get better.

"To follow up all that doom and gloom, when we change our sleep habits and get more sleep again, we also see that some of those mental and physiological effects go away," says Banks.

Edison, for what it's worth, would fall asleep under his desk or in meetings – sometimes he'd just pass out wherever he was. His wife installed a cot in the corner of his office so he'd at least have somewhere to lie down.

So, the next time you feel like a nap might be a waste of time, remember it's just the opposite. If you can get it, there's truly no better productivity hack than a quick nap.