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The Difference Between Napping and Sleeping Is Broader Than You Think

Power naps are very different from sleeping throughout the night. Understanding the difference is the first step to making use of its different physical and mental health benefits.

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Is sleeping and napping the same? Many of us assume that they are the same, but that’s not true. Sleep is a state in which the eyes are closed, the postural muscles relaxed, and consciousness practically suspended. Napping, however, is the act of lying down with the intent to calm your body and mind to achieve rest and recovery. However similar they sound there is a difference.

Man sleeping on bed

A nap is a short repose and can last anywhere between 1 to 20 minutes, any duration of rest longer than 20 minutes begins a sleep cycle. Now there are two types of sleep – REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and Non-REM sleep.

Non-REM sleep lasts from 5 to 15 minutes, during which time the body’s temperature drops and the heart rate slows down. This stage of sleep is a prelude to longer, deeper sleep that occurs in the REM cycle. During non-REM sleep, the body repairs and regrows tissue, builds bone and muscle, and strengthens the immune system.

REM sleep, however, lasts longer up to 90 minutes in most cases. During this sleep cycle, people dream because the brain is most active at this point. Babies spend 50% of their sleep in the REM stage compared to just 20% among adults, according to WebMD.

When we take naps, we enter a period of non-REM sleep that is short enough to give our body rest and not too long that it starts a sleep cycle. When we sleep for more than 20 minutes, we start a REM cycle. The primary reason that we can feel groggy and disoriented after a half-hour or 45-minute repose is that we were interrupting a sleep cycle that was supposed to last 90 minutes. It is also called a state of sleep inertia.

This is why a 20 minute or 10-minute naps is highly recommended by experts. Usually, in a sitting position, the objective is not to sleep really but to get restful sleep. They are also called power naps, a great way to improve concentration, productivity, alertness, and mood.  

Lady wearing eye mask and napping

Did you know that Salvatore Dali, Thomas Edison, and Beethoven all took power naps in the afternoon? They were some of history’s most creative and innovative minds. Studies have shown that short naps improve productivity, alertness, and mood. There are still many studies going on about the benefits of napping and sleep disorders. Some of these studies have shown astounding results that would convert any nonbeliever.

According to a study by NASA on sleepy military pilots and astronauts, a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34% and alertness by 100%. Experts on sleep from the Mayo Foundation have recommended a 20-minute siesta for cat-nappers. That is enough time for your body temperature to fall and heart rate to slow down. Giving your mind time to recharge and recuperate. A power nap is a great way to stay fresh during a stressful day. Experts recommend it more than drinking coffee, because of its long term effect on your body. Power naps are like non-REM sleep, helping your body repair tissues and strengthen your immune system.

In addition to this, napping helps reduce the chances of a drowsy driving crash. Experts recommend that drivers take a short nap when they feel tired. Researchers at the Sleep Medicine and Research Center in suburban St. Louis, MO, they found that a combination of caffeine and napping improved alertness and performance among night shift workers. It takes 30 minutes for the coffee to have its effect, so drinking it just before a nap will help you feel refreshed.

Lady sleeping on bed

It’s important to remember that a nap that lasts longer than 20 to 30 minutes will result in sleep inertia. Since the body has begun a sleep cycle, that when broken makes you feel disoriented.

Napping has other benefits besides increased performance. Since a short nap reduces blood pressure as the heart rate slows; it helps to improve mood and reduces stress. It is recommended in case of stressful situations as it also helps solve problems and think creatively. Winston Churchill, Ronald Regan, Leonardo DaVinci, Aristotle, Albert Einstein, Margret Thatcher, John F Kennedy, and Bill Clinton have all made use of the creative benefits of napping.

Napping can also help learn new concepts, skills, and languages faster. Taking naps in between studying or learning a new concept pushes information from short term to long term memory. A study in 2006 by the Biological Physiology separated participants into two groups, each group was given a nap before a reading task. It was noted that habitual nappers performed better on reading and retention tasks. This was attributed to the fact they synthesized motor learning better, a process of learning a new skill.

Napping is also a great way to improve memory. In a study by Neurobiology of Learning and Memory in 2010 on the effects of napping and memory retention found that a nap helped retain associative memory. The ability to make connections between unrelated objects is known as an associative memory. In their study, those participants who took a 90-minute nap performed better than those who did not. This confirms that memory and learning ability are improved with naps.

Notably, it is recommended by experts that naps are taken between 2 and 3 pm because the body’s productivity naturally dips at that point of the day.

This is why taking a nap the right way is more important. It’s less about sleeping and more about resting your body. Salvador Dali was famous for his naps. He would sit in a chair and hold a key in his hand, below which would be a plate. As he is close to a deep slumber, the key falls out of his hand, and onto the plate waking him up. This indicates the perfect balance between deep sleep and restful sleep. He would often wake up with a new idea.

While this article extensively covers the benefits of napping, it’s not always recommended in case someone has a sleeping disorder. Some people may even find that taking naps interferes with their natural sleeping habits. Unless someone has a diagnosed sleeping disorder taking power naps is highly recommended. Many experts prescribe scheduled naps as a treatment for narcolepsy (a sleeping disorder).


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