Folks who find themselves feeling draggy or foggy — a mid-afternoon slump — might greatly benefit from a short nap in the afternoon.

According to a variety of studies, naps can counter the post-lunch energy slump. They say naps can boost happiness, lower the risk of cardiovascular events like stroke and improve productivity. Napping also helps with creativity and problem-solving. Making it a habit leads to a better mood, less fatigue and sleepiness and bolsters athletic performance.

Dr. Sara Mednick, a sleep researcher, told Physicians News that “napping is a powerful tool to help improve cognitive function, consolidate memories, and improve learning capacity.” The article noted that ”short bursts of sleep during the day have been shown to boost hippocampal functioning, a region crucial for memory formation and information retention.”

A study in China that was published in General Psychiatry also found napping regularly in the afternoon is good for brain function and maintaining cognition.

But there’s a warning. The key is not dipping too deeply into one’s sleep cycle, because the goal is feeling refreshed, not sleeping too long or waking up groggy, experts say.

Research suggests the 20-minute catnap is ideal for most people if the goal is feeling refreshed and alert, as Medical News Today reported. That’s long enough to be helpful without moving into deeper sleep that may be hard to rouse from or could just make you feel more tired. The best naps involve just the first and second stages of sleep.

A good nap should last no more than a half hour, according to the Sleep Foundation.

But there’s room for some variation depending on one’s natural sleep rhythm, age and factors like general health.

Equally important is knowing how to nap (more about that later).

Sleep stages matter

The Sleep Foundation points out that sleep occurs in stages, whether it’s at night or a daytime nap. And the sleep cycle is pretty consistent, with some natural individual variation:

  • Stage 1 is light and brief, lasting fewer than seven minutes.
  • Stage 2 lasts 10-25 minutes. Though it’s light sleep, muscles relax and the body’s functions slow down.
  • Stage 3 is more restorative and if you let your nap get into that stage, it’s harder to wake up. It lasts 20-40 minutes.
  • Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is where dreams occur. In REM, muscles are temporarily paralyzed.

During normal sleep, the body cycles through the stages, repeating them multiple times. A good nap typically just dips into the light stages of sleep.

Napping at different ages

While 20 minutes is a good nap length for most adults, teens may require between a half hour and a full hour. Infants and toddlers need lots of naps and in their case, long naps are good, per Medical News Today.

A study by researchers in Uruguay published in Sleep Health Journal found a modest causal link between habitual napping and bigger brain volume. They said that people who regularly nap have larger brains, which could be a factor in avoiding neurodegeneration as a person ages, since the brain shrinks over time.

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The study was based on data on 378,932 people with an average age of 57, looking at “total brain volume, hippocampal volume, reaction time, and visual memory.”

“Based on our findings, we hypothesize that napping regularly provides some protection against neurodegeneration by compensating for poor sleep,” lead author Valentina Paz, a researcher at Uruguay’s University of the Republic and University College London, told Well and Good.

How to nap

The Mayo Clinic offers some advice on how to power nap with purpose and results. Among recommendations:

  • Set your alarm so you don’t sleep too long. Aim for less than 30 minutes.
  • Plan afternoon naps around 2 or 3 p.m. to counter any slump. That’s early enough, as well, to not mess with nighttime sleep.
  • Find a quiet space where you’re not apt to be interrupted and turn off screens, including your phone. Minimal light is good. And adjust the room temperature if needed.
  • Give yourself a few minutes to wake up before you resume your normal activities.

If you’re still always tired after a power nap, the clinic and other experts recommend consulting a physician to see if something else is going on.

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