Is Napping Safe? How to Maximize Sleep Benefits

Cassandra Twining | @cass_twining

Many people have had a love-hate relationship with naps throughout their lives. They can be a huge asset for those who need a little pick me up midday or just need a little escape. However, there is a right and wrong way to nap. Not knowing how to properly do it could be harming you more than it’s helping.

Everyone has what’s called a circadian rhythm. This is essentially an internal clock telling your body when it needs to sleep and when it needs to be awake. The area of the brain that regulates this is light-sensitive; this is why our bodies naturally are more awake during daylight hours and less awake during nighttime hours. This clock corresponds to your sleep cycle which is what we’ll be looking at in terms of napping.

Your sleep cycle is composed of 3 non-REM (rapid eye movement) stages and 1 REM stage and usually totals about 90 minutes. Each of the stages serves a unique purpose, has an ideal length, and has different brain activity levels. Let’s look at each stage individually to get a better idea at how they are affecting your body.

The Stages of Sleep

Stage 1 Light Sleep: This is the first stage you enter when falling asleep. It is very light and occurs when your body is first starting to relax after being awake. This is when your brain has alpha waves. Other than REM, these are the most similar waves to those when you’re awake. You usually spend about 15-20 minutes at this stage.

Stage 2 Deeper Sleep: At this stage, you start to actually get useful sleep. Your body starts to fully relax and you begin to twitch because of sleep spindles, a special kind of wave within the theta waves. These theta waves are slower and less jumpy than the alpha waves of stage 1. During this stage, you start to get the sleep that actually produces restfulness. The sleep spindles are also your brain’s way of processing the day and relaxing your mind, body, and muscles. As a result of chemical blockages, you are more difficult to wake up during this stage, which lasts around 5-15 minutes.

Stage 3 Deep Sleep: This is the deepest non-REM sleep stage that occurs. During this stage, your brain is producing very slow delta waves and it is difficult to wake or disturb the body. This is when your body is fully relaxed and getting the rest it needs. You spend about 5-15 minutes in this stage as well. The times spent in each stage can vary depending on the person and circumstances.

Stage 4 REM Sleep: The final stage of the sleep cycle is REM. During rapid eye movement (REM), your blood pressure, heart rate, and brain activity increase. The increase in brain activity produces desynchronized wavelengths similar to those of when you’re awake. Not only do you dream during this stage, but also your body processes and retains new information you may have learned. It is a vital sleep stage to assist in memorization. Like the other stages, you spend around 5-15 minutes here.

Proper Napping

Now that you know about the various stages of sleep you can begin to plan your nap strategy. It is important to keep in mind the types of brain activity going on in each of the sleep cycles. Think of your brain like a car. If your brain car is going 10 mph and then suddenly needs to jump to 60 mph, it’s going to be very difficult. It will also be hard on the engine and transmission. This is similar to your body waking up from stage 3 of sleep. Because the brain waves are slow and relaxed and then suddenly need to jump to being awake, where the waves are quick and hectic, it is a harsh transition for your brain.

Keeping this in mind, it’s obvious that waking up during stages 1 or 4 is more beneficial for you. These are the stages in which your brain either never really slowed down or has waves similar to those when awake. When you nap accordingly, you’ll find that your naps are more productive and it’s easier to wake up and actually feel awake. Therefore, when planning your naps, aim for only 15-20 minutes to stay in the first stage, or a full 90-minutes so that you wake up during stage 4.

Now that you have a good strategy in place, get to napping!

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