By Marc Courtiol
As the pace of modern life continues to get faster and faster, many have begun to worry that our on-the-go lifestyle is having negative effects on our bodies and minds. Even the healthiest people need time to unwind and relax, and our bodies need a certain amount of sleep every day in order to function without impairment. So amidst that 60-hour work week, if you sacrifice sleep in favor of work and do not give your body time to rebuild itself, you will undoubtedly experience negative effects.
Understanding that physical and mental health is the driving forces behind workplace productivity, some companies have begun to make it easier for sleep-deprived workers to catch up on their rest. For example, you may have read the recent news reports about Google’s “napping pods” and Nike’s “quiet rooms,” and these trends are not confined to well-known major corporations. The trend has declined slightly during the recession, which has seen employers trying to squeeze more productivity out of few workers, but as the economy improves we are likely to see this trend toward on-the-job napping continue.
But what exactly are the health benefits of napping? Is it all just hype, or does napping in the middle of the day truly give a significant boost that makes up for the productivity lost during napping? Let us take a deeper look at this issue.
The effects of sleep deprivation
Obviously, being well-rested is better than being poorly rested. The National Sleep Foundation, while noting that sleep needs vary across the population, recommends that adults get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. Unfortunately, too few adults actually get this much, sacrificing sleep in favor of career, family, and social pressures. While getting 6-7 hours of sleep rather than 7-9 may not seem like a huge sacrifice, the body will punish you in subtle ways, and over the course of days you will build up a “sleep debt,” which takes a toll in the form of poor physical health, increased stress, a weakened immune system, and emotional instability.
Some of the effects of sleep deprivation may not be noticeable. For example, when your short-term memory takes a hit (a common effect of poor sleep), you may occasionally notice that things slip from your mind, but you may not make the connection between these moments and your poor sleep. Another common effect of sleep deprivation is weight fluctuation, which can result from the metabolic imbalances that poor sleep creates. People tend to attribute such fluctuations to diet and exercise habits, not realizing that sleep is an equally important element.
When you are severely sleep deprived-that is, when you get less than four hours of sleep-you may begin to notice much more obvious effects. Countless studies have shown that severe sleep deprivation is akin to alcohol intoxication in the way that it impairs cognitive functioning and decreases motor performance. In other words, driving tired is similar to driving drunk. And just as you probably would not trust yourself to do good work when intoxicated, you are probably not going to be at your best at work when you have not gotten enough sleep.
How napping helps
Just as everyone varies in the amount of sleep they need, there are wide variations in the exact benefits of naps. Some people find that napping disrupts their nighttime sleep and even makes them feel drowsy during the rest of the day, but in general, naps have been shown in countless studies to provide very significant benefits, especially for the sleep deprived.
At the most basic level, napping helps to reset the system and give you a burst of alertness and motor performance. Even if the 15- to 20-minute nap does not make up for your lost nighttime sleep, this burst of mental and physical energy can be enough to get you through that final stretch of your work day. And if you can manage to get more than 15 to 20 minutes, even better. Longer naps have been shown to boost decision-making skills and memorization. Getting 60 to 90 minutes of sleep-which usually takes the napper into REM sleep-is best of all for the purposes of rest, although at this point you risk disrupting your nighttime sleep.
Napping can also help reduce stress, give a boost to your immune system, and, in the long run, help fight against a range of diseases. In order to experience the best possible effects, try to establish a regular napping schedule. Naptime should fall toward the middle of the day, which is between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. for most people. It should be relatively quick, with 30 minutes being the ideal. It should also be in a dark and comfortable place, so that your body is able to get into the deepest, most restful state of sleep possible during that short time. If you find that you get cranky after a nap, pick yourself up afterwards with a cup of coffee, herbal tea or a light meal.