When Lyndon Johnson became president and was thrown into the 24/7 lifestyle of commander-in-chief, he received this advice from outgoing First Lady Jackie Kennedy: Take naps.
“It changed Jack’s whole life,” she said.
President John F. Kennedy, as it turned out, was big on naps. He slept for one to two hours after lunch. The practice kept him fresh and alert through his 12-hour-plus workdays (especially during the marathon sessions of the Cuban missile crisis).
(More: Learn How to Enjoy Better Sleep)
Naps are popular among big thinkers. JFK learned about naps from his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, who himself followed the lead of chronic napper Winston Churchill during World War II. According to Churchill, “Nature has not intended mankind to work from 8 in the morning until midnight without that refreshment of blessed oblivion, which, even if it only lasts 20 minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces.”
These days we need naps more than ever as we are a sleep-deprived nation. While most recommendations are for eight hours or more of nightly sleep a night, a 2009 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey found that 35.3 percent of the nearly 75,000 respondents reported sleeping less than seven hours a night.
And sleep deprivation makes for a bunch of tired, cranky people.
Businesses have noted this trend and begun to help their sleep-weary workforces by encouraging midday naps. Some have even implemented onsite naps rooms. (Some top nap leaders include British Airways, Nike, Pizza Hut and Google.)
These companies have found that rested workers are more mentally fresh, alert and productive. Science agrees. Research from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia VA Medical Center found that interns and senior medical students — the poster children for sleep deprivation—who took naps during their extended overnight shifts showed improved alertness and concentration.
But naps have powers beyond the quick mental recharge. They can assist in other ways:
Spur creativity Ever wake up from a nap with a great idea? Georgetown University researchers found that during a nap, the brain activity in the right hemisphere — linked to creative tasks, like visualization and big-picture thinking — stays active while the left side remains mostly quiet. It is not clear why this occurs, but study author Adrei Medvedev of Georgetown’s Center for Functional and Molecular Imaging speculated that the right brain is performing essential “housecleaning” duties, like consolidating memories. Therefore when you wake up, the creative side is more organized and prepared for original thoughts.
Improve Your Memory Scientists at the University of California at Berkeley examined memory tests of people who took a 100-minute nap compared to those who did not. No surprise, the nappers performed better — by about 10 percent. The reason, said the lead researcher, Matthew Walker, is that sleep helps to clear out the clutter in your hippocampus, the part of the brain believed linked to memory function. Upon waking, you have more space to process and retain new information.
Protect Your Heart Regular naps are good for your heart, according to research from the University of Athens Medical School in Greece. The study of approximately 24,000 Greek men and women ages 20 to 86 found that after a six-year period, those who took midday naps had a 34 percent less chance of dying from heart disease. Even the occasional nap had a positive affect. Those who took a siesta for 30 minutes or longer at least three times per week lowered their risk.
Sleep on It
Naps should not interfere with your regular nighttime slumber. They need to follow a few rules. Here are some guidelines from sleep expert Sara C. Mednick, author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life:
- Keep it short. The ideal catnap is 20 to 30 minutes. Anything longer and you risk drifting into slow wave sleep, or SWS, which can produce sleep inertia — that groggy feeling — upon awakening. However, if you are quite sleep deprived, a longer nap of about 90 minutes might be necessary.
- Maintain a regular schedule. Prime napping time is between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. This is when you might experience post-lunch sleepiness or a lower level of alertness. Plus, naps taken during this time are less likely to interfere with your nighttime sleep. Shh! Nap in a quiet, dark place with few distractions. If necessary, wear an eye mask to help block out light or listen to soft music to create a more tranquil setting. This will help you fall asleep faster.
Who knows? Like JFK and LBJ, you may wake up feeling presidential.