The Science of Napping and How to Nap Like a Champ

Ahhh, naps.  Just thinking about them brings joy to the heart.

A nap can leave you feeling rejuvenated, empowered, like you can take on the world.

It also seems to be the perfect elixir for sins the day before, namely eating too much or drinking too much. 

Various Silicon Valley headquarters actually have nap rooms for their employees, including Google.  Sometimes it feels like those guys have it all figured out.  Why can’t we all work for companies like that?

As discussed in previous posts, the West is operating at dangerous levels of sleep deprivation.  Our jobs and our technology, among other things, have transformed our lives into a 24/7 hustle.  You are viewed as more responsible if you sleep less.  You’re a hard worker with your priorities straight.  These are twisted affirmations we receive from the culture.

But the reality is, sleep deprivation is wreaking havoc on our lives in many ways.

It’s time for a hero to rise up.

Enter the nap.

So we know how incredibly AMAZING we feel after taking a nap, but is there any science behind this?

So many questions.

Does napping serve the same function as nighttime sleep in restoring our brain and body?  Or is it an inferior alternative to getting proper circadian shut-eye?

How is it that some people are perpetual nappers while others can’t do it to save their lives?

Can the nap save us from our hyper “productive” and mentally draining lifestyles?  Or at the very least, take the pressure off getting those hours of uninterrupted zzz’s at night?

Let’s explore what’s really happening during the nap.  For those of us who struggle in this department, we’re going to find solutions.  Maybe the stars will align.  Maybe the nap IS the hero we all need. 


What happens while you nap?

Lying down for an afternoon snooze has many of the same positive effects of sufficient nighttime sleep.  And most of these benefits have to do with the brain.

In multiple studies, individuals who took midday naps exhibited increased performance and memory function.  They were also shown to have an improved mood compared to their pre-nap state.

No wonder Google wants its employees to nap!  It seems like a sure-fire way to jumpstart creativity and focus. 

But not everyone is going to experience the same glowing benefits of a nap. 

While some report feeling restored, invigorated and more focused, others feel groggy and helplessly lethargic afterwards.

The difference in how we feel afterwards often depends on the length of the nap itself.

Apparently, 20 minutes is all you need to reap the aforementioned perks offered by a delicious nap.  20 minutes and under keep you from falling into that deep REM sleep, meaning you’ll be able to wake up easily and get on with your day.

If you stay asleep a little longer, you risk grogginess.  Sleeping between a half and full hour will put you into that deeper REM state.  In the deeper cycles, brain activity REALLY slows down, so when you wake up, you may feel even more tired than before.


90 minute naps will take you from the light part of the cycle into REM, and back out again.  So snoozing for this long puts you in the clear from the grog.


Nappers and non-nappers

In addition to the length of said nap, whether or not you do it habitually will affect the way you feel in the aftermath.  Regular nappers report more benefits, while the not-so-frequent nappers are more likely to experience fogginess and decrease in focus.

So why can some nap like pros while others find it a nearly impossible task?

There’s no clear cut answer to this, but an individual’s circadian rhythm (a biological predisposition regulated by the brain by which one sleeps while it is dark and remains awake during the day) or lack thereof may play a part.

People who do not adhere to a natural circadian rhythm are more likely to be good nappers.  These night owls don’t have as much trouble turning their brains off during the day.

A person’s natural sleep cycles are also a determinant. 

For example, someone who for whatever reason does not usually go into the deeper REM states for long periods of time will have an easier time napping.  Their body and brain are used to coming in and out of the lighter levels of sleep.

Whereas a heavy REM sleeper is less-likely to be able to fall into a shallower cycle and recover quickly from a nap.



Napping vs. circadian sleep

The burning question to determine whether or not naps will truly save the day is this:

Are they a tried and true substitute for nighttime shut-eye?

Well, not exactly.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, though naps have their benefits, they are not proven to be adequate substitutes for regular circadian sleep.  While there is admittedly limited science on habitual napping, the rewards are decidedly short-term. 

The benefits of a nap are seen immediately after the fact, but have been shown to have no long lasting effects.

On the contrary, regular circadian sleep between seven to nine hours is directly linked to lower Body Mass Index, increased emotional health and a longer life span.

In short, a nap will indeed give us some of the positive effects of a good night’s sleep: elevated mood, increased focus, high energy levels.  But these effects are short-lived, just like the nap itself.


Nap like a champ

So maybe a 20 minute nap isn’t the same as a full eight hour session of primal sleep.  But getting the awesome brain and mood boosts from one can be just the energy we need to power through a long day.  Here are some tips to nap like a champ:

1.  Create a cozy sleep environment.

Very obvious advice.  Limit the amount of light and noise as best you can and get comfortable. 

2.  Time it right.

Too early in the day and your body may not be ready for more sleep yet.  Too late and you risk affecting your nighttime sleep.  The hours between noon and 4:00 are primetime for naps.

3.  Actually time it.

Set your alarm.  Remember, you want to hit one of the sweet spots: 20 minutes or 90 minutes.  Then again, depending on your natural sleep depth tendencies, you may be able to hit a sweet spot in between.  See what works for you.  As long as you don’t wake up with that super fuzzy feeling, you’re good.

4.  Make it a thing.

Setting your alarm at the same hour for the same amount of time on a regular basis will get your body and brain into a rhythm.  This way you can train yourself to become a nap champion.



Could the nap be the superhero of our time?  Is it the antidote to the poison of sleep deprivation?

In short, the answer is no.

The nap is not a panacea for our tiredness.  We’re going to have to figure out a way to get legitimate sleep to fix that.


The nap is more like the sidekick.  It’s there for us when the real superhero is tied up doing other things.  It provides a temporary fix that any groggy person will gladly take.  And unlike caffeine or other substances, a nap is completely and 100% healthy.

Try working naps into your routine and see what happens.  Perhaps putting in time with sleep’s sidekick will be just the health boost you need.