Can an Afternoon Nap Boost Your Mental Agility?
Does your afternoon sluggishness make it difficult for you to concentrate at work? If so, you are far from alone. According to a January 2021 article published on Healthline.com, struggling to remain alert and productive after lunch is a common experience of employees across the world. Can an afternoon nap really give you a boost?
Retirees, students, and stay-at-home parents can also experience a noticeable drop in mental agility in the early afternoon hours. Are naps good for everyone?
A Recent Study in China Puts Afternoon Napping to the Test
The Healthline.com article quoted a study published in the General Psychiatry BMJ Journals that evaluated the nap and mental health habits of 2,214 volunteers over age 60. Of this group, 680 people reported that they napped regularly and 1,534 did not take regular naps. The study was particularly interested in understanding the link between routine rest periods and cognitive functioning as people age.
Chinese researchers concluded that older people who took a regular afternoon nap had significantly higher scores on the Mini Mental Status Exam (MMSE). The MMSE is a test that helps doctors screen patients for signs of dementia. Areas covered on the exam include:
- Attention span
- Location awareness
- Problem solving
- Verbal fluency
- Visuospatial skills
- Working memory
Dr. Lin Sun, who is employed by both the Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the Shanghai Mental Health Center, pointed out some interesting differences among study volunteers who napped. This group scored especially well on the location awareness, verbal fluency, and working memory portions of the MMSE. Dr. Sun attributes this to the fact that people who get more sleep have an easier time learning and retaining information.
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Davina Ramkissoon, the director of well-being at Zevo Health in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States, also participated in overseeing the study of Chinese seniors. She stated that taking a short afternoon nap helps the brain recover from having to process a lot of information.
Every person’s brain takes in and stores or filters information and stimuli during all their waking hours. Ramkissoon further elaborated that short naps clear the brain of information overload to make room for the new information people need to process for the remainder of the day.
How to Get the Most Out of an Afternoon Nap
Anyone can benefit from engaging in light sleep in the middle of the day, not just those who are over age 60. Regardless of a person’s age, the rest period has the same effect of clearing out information overload and helping people relax.
Unfortunately, napping during the day still has a bit of a stigma attached to it. Others may assume the person is lazy, ill, has low energy, or is trying to escape responsibility. These assumptions are rarely based on reality.
Sleep experts recommend that people who want to start taking an afternoon nap aim to get 10 to 30 minutes of light sleep between 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. Keep in mind that daytime napping differs significantly from the deep, restorative, and rapid eye movement sleep of nighttime. Even so, a daytime nap offers plenty of benefits in addition to mental agility. Some of these include:
- Increased physical energy
- Reduced mental tension
- Greater alertness for the remainder of the day
- Improved mental health, especially as it relates to decreased depression and anxiety
Some in the field of sleep medicine feel that napping longer than 30 minutes each day is not beneficial and can be a sign of inadequate sleep at night. Others feel that a nap of up to 60 minutes can provide even greater benefit than a shorter nap. Those with the latter opinion state that memories transfer from a person’s hippocampus, which is a temporary holding place, to the cortex. The cortex of the brain is responsible for holding permanent memories.
When an Afternoon Nap May Not Be Healthy
Sometimes excess sleep is a sign of a deeper problem. One common example is people who are clinically depressed using sleep as a means of escaping their intense feelings or not participating in relationships. They may even use prescription or over-the-counter sleep aids to sleep as much as possible, whether sleep occurs during the day or at night.
Excessive fatigue is also a symptom of many medical conditions. People who feel the need to sleep for more than 30 to 60 minutes every afternoon should schedule a physical exam with their doctor. They might also consider scheduling a sleep study to determine if unknown problems such as sleep apnea are preventing them from getting a good night’s sleep.
The Physical Benefits of Afternoon Napping
Mental agility is extremely important, especially as people age. Keeping the mind as sharp as possible reduces the likelihood of brain illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease that disproportionately affect the elderly.
However, the benefits of a short daily nap often extend to physical health as well. In another study published by BMJ Journals, psychiatry professors Kristine Yaffe and Yue Leng, employees of the University of California, looked at the relationship between regular afternoon naps and heart health. They published their comments in Heart BMJ Journals in response to a 2015 study in Switzerland.
During that study, Swiss researchers obtained medical data from 3,462 volunteers who had no previous history of cardiovascular disease. The researchers recorded the cardiac health of each participant along with whether and how much each person napped during the day. They followed the cardiac health of the original control group over the next five years and found that 155 people had a medical event described as heart-related during that period. This included both fatal and non-fatal heart attacks along with several less serious cardiovascular health concerns.
After analyzing the data, the Swiss researchers discovered that people who reported regularly taking an afternoon nap had far fewer heart-related health issues and events than those who never napped. The length of naps had little bearing on the cardiovascular outcomes for the purpose of this study.
Aim for Healthy Sleep and Naps
Some people can lie in bed for up to 10 hours every night and still not get quality sleep. Common reasons for poor nighttime sleep quality include:
- Anxiety and stress
- Sleep apnea
- Loud environment
- Excessive exposure to electronic devices
- Illness and pain
- Restless leg syndrome
- Partner’s snoring
- Frequent urination
Sleep experts agree that healthy sleep habits at night should carry over to healthy sleep habits during short afternoon naps. However, sleeping too long or too deeply can lead to the same grogginess and mental confusion that comes after several consecutive hours of deep sleep at night. Anyone who struggles with insomnia should first determine the cause of that problem before resorting to catching up on their sleep during the day.
A daily nap may not be necessary to receive the benefits of an early afternoon shuteye. Therefore, people should not force themselves to nap if their mental stamina and energy level are normal. On the other hand, pushing through daytime fatigue can have unintended health consequences and is something people should avoid.
So yes, according to research, an afternoon nap certainly can boost your mental agility! Happy napping!