The Covid-19 lockdown has introduced some people to the perks and perils of working from home (WFH) for the first time. While the lack of commuting might mean you get to sleep in a little longer, there are many reasons why a lot of us aren’t sleeping as well as usual and when your bed is just in the next room, a cheeky siesta can be all too tempting. The phrase “power nap” gets thrown around a lot, but do short bursts of sleep actually make us feel better? We spoke to a sleep specialist to find out if napping can really boost productivity.
“As any active duty soldier, new parent, or medical resident will attest, naps are gold!” said Dr Roxanne J Prichard, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, in an interview with IFLScience. “Extreme fatigue is a sign our body is crying out for sleep. Sleep is the only way to address that issue.”
When we’re extremely sleep deprived, our bodies can experience what Dr Prichard describes as “localized microsleeps”, which is when parts of our brain essentially fall asleep even while we’re still walking and talking. Certainly, we’ve likely all experienced days where it feels like we’re sleepwalking through life, and it turns out this might be precisely what’s happening. According to Dr Prichard, these microsleeps can be experienced as “zoning out, fixating on one area in our visual space, or brain fog.”
While napping won’t be as beneficial as a proper night’s sleep, Prichard recommends a 20-minute nap as a short-term fix if sleep deprivation is blocking your productivity. However, as Dr Prichard explains, not all naps are born equal, and there are two big cautions she urges prospective nappers to consider before sneaking 40 winks.
“First, if you nap for too long (more than 20 minutes if you have generally good health and a good sleep schedule) or too close to sleep time (within 5-6 hours of bedtime) that can reduce the sleep pressure making it hard to fall asleep at night. It’s for this reason that people with insomnia are NOT encouraged to nap, even though they probably feel daytime fatigue.”
Prichard explains that the purpose for napping has a big impact on how you approach it, with nap varieties including prophylactic and replacement. Shift workers might gift themselves a prophylactic nap if they know they’re going to be working late into the night, for which Prichard recommends around 1-3 hours. Replacement naps are recommended for workers such as firefighters who might be “on duty” for 48 hours, but with available gaps in their shift to sleep. In this scenario, Prichard says 90 minutes is a reasonable goal to fit in a full sleep cycle nap, which should mean you wake at the right time. Why this is important is explained in warning two…
“The second concern is sleep inertia. If you are napping for more than 20 minutes and set an alarm to wake up (rather than waking up naturally) you run the risk of waking up in deep sleep, which frankly feels just awful. Our EEGs when waking are usually 12 – 30 Hz (cycles per second). In deep sleep, your brain slows down to as low as 1 cycle per second. If you’re woken up here by an alarm, or well-meaning housemate, you feel groggy, sluggish, out of it, confused. Some call this sleep drunkenness. This happens to a lot of college athletes who fall asleep on the bus on the way to a competition and then find themselves trying to fight off deep sleep while also preparing for an intense athletic performance.”
So, if you’re not fighting fire or on your way to a football game, what’s the best way to nap to get through the working day at home? “A short 20-minute nap is a good quick fix and should be considered part of preventative care strategy for folks with known challenges to nightly sleep, for example, shift workers, new parents, people with sleep disorders. A nap is no substitute for adequate nighttime sleep (sleep when our circadian rhythm wants it), but it can keep the wolves at bay for a bit, so to speak.”
According to Dr Prichard, sleep deprivation can impact our performance to a similar degree as alcohol. One study found that staying awake for just two hours later than usual puts our performance at a 0.05 percent blood alcohol level equivalency, meaning we’re as distracted, irritable, and unable to concentrate as someone with a 0.05 percent blood alcohol.
If you’re going to nap, you might as well do it like a pro. So how does a sleep specialist approach a siesta? “When I nap,” explained Dr Prichard. “I like to make sure my body knows it’s a nap, and not a full sleep. One of the ways I do this is not napping in my bed under the covers, but rather on a porch swing, in a hammock, or a yoga mat. A quick 10 – 20-minute power nap (set an alarm if you’re afraid you’ll sleep past that) is almost like a yoga savasana (corpse pose) for me. I’m very relaxed, and my thoughts are drifting off.”