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10 Things that Happen to Your Body When You Take a Nap

Catching some sleep on the fly can do more than just help you feel refreshed and revitalized

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The benefits of napping

Good news: Experts agree that there are plenty of benefits of napping beyond the fact that it feels amazing—like you got away with something. Here’s everything you need to know about the power of a quick snooze and how to benefit from one the most.

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Napping makes you more alert

Napping sometimes gets a bad rap, as if shut-eye during the day indicates laziness. But some of the brightest minds in history, including Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison, were famously nappers. Research is turning up new benefits to napping, and how a quick bout of sleep can regenerate body and mind. When you start falling into that mid-day slump, “a short nap interferes with ‘sleep drive,’ that sometimes irresistible feeling that you need to go to sleep, which will wreck concentration and alertness,” says Carl Bazil, MD, director of the Division of Sleep and Epilepsy at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. By taking the edge off with a nap, you feel restored, and more alert and attentive. According to the National Sleep Foundation, a NASA study on military pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34 percent and alertness by a whopping 100 percent. Here are tips for taking a nap that truly energizes you.

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Napping helps you remember stuff

Along with this boost in mental function from napping comes an increased ability to retain learned information. “Napping strengthens the neural connections that form our memories,” says Elizabeth McDevitt, PhD, a researcher at the Computational Memory Lab at Princeton Neuroscience Institute and at the Sleep and Cognition Lab at the University of California, Riverside where she works with famed napping expert Sara Mednick, MD, author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life. “During sleep, brain areas that were involved in initially acquiring a memory might be reactivated, essentially ‘replaying’ neural activity during sleep.” By doing this, memories are reinforced and moved into long-term storage areas of the brain. 

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Napping improves heart health

Sleep is not only good for your brain—it helps your heart too. “Sleep has been referred to as a ‘cardiovascular holiday’ because during restorative deep sleep, including naps, there is an overall reduction in cardiovascular output,'” McDevitt says. Instead, the parasympathetic system, known as the “rest and digest” response, takes over. One 2019 study in the BMJ found that one to two naps a week may lower the risk of heart attack or stroke. In fact, occasional napping almost halved the risk of having a heart attack or stroke in comparison to people who didn’t nap at all. It’s also known that sleep deprivation can lead to heart risks, so it stands to reason that heading off sleepiness with a daytime nap can only be beneficial. These are the little changes you can make to sleep better in one day.

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Naps reduce stress

Sleepiness is also linked with increased blood pressure and greater levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol, so reducing the tension caused by stress through napping is good for your body. “Cortisol levels drop during a nap, suggesting that a nap can help reverse the effects of nighttime sleep loss on cortisol,” McDevitt says. Other research from Greece presented at the American College of Cardiology’s annual session found that a midday nap lowered blood pressure as much as is expected while taking blood pressure medications. “Daily naps reduce the amount of stress hormones in the body, decreasing stress and lowering the risk of heart disease,” says Richard Shane, PhD, a behavioral sleep specialist and founder of the Sleep Easily method.

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Napping helps keep the pounds off

You know when you just can’t resist that sugary mid-afternoon snack? It comes from a natural dip in your internal clock—your circadian rhythm—at that time that makes you feel tired and look for a pick-me-up. But if you take a nap, you can help stave off cravings that lead to unhealthy food consumption, and, therefore, weight gain. According to McDevitt, there is some evidence that sleeping curtails ghrelin and increases leptin, which are metabolic hormones that regulate hunger and appetite. But there’s another likely explanation too. “Individuals who are feeling sluggish during the day due to poor nighttime sleep may be more likely to make poor food decisions, especially if they are looking for an energy boost—they may be more likely to choose sugary food and drinks,” McDevitt says. “From this point of view, napping is a healthier alternative to combat sleepiness.” Here are ways you can literally lose weight in your sleep.

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Napping improves your mood

Anyone who’s seen the effects of skipping a nap on a toddler knows that sleepiness increases crankiness—and this goes for adults too. “When we have a poor night’s sleep, it creates a hormonal neuroendocrine imbalance that contributes to our feeling of tiredness and irritability,” Shane says. “Napping has been shown to help restore the neuroendocrine system back to levels we have after a good night’s sleep.” But to make sure you don’t wake up groggy and feeling worse, try a power nap of only 20 to 30 minutes, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

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Naps boost your immune system

Another of the regenerative benefits of napping may be helping our body ward off invading germs. “Sleep loss impairs immune function, and napping might help restore immune function after sleep deprivation,” McDevitt says. “One study found that leukocyte counts [white blood cells, which fight infection] were increased following a night of sleep restriction, but a nap followed by a night of eight-hour recovery sleep restored leukocyte levels to baseline.” In this small study, the group that was allowed only the nighttime sleep—but not the 30-minute nap—didn’t show this effect. Along with helping our body fight disease, the health benefits of napping extend to skin and tissue regeneration, helping us look younger, according to Mednick. These are the things that can happen to your body if you get too much sleep.

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Napping refines physical performance

Napping can help enhance your workout—or even fine-motor skills like piano playing. “The motor system can become fatigued from overuse, leading to slower or less accurate motor performance,” McDevitt says. “Napping can help alleviate this motor fatigue, restoring speed and accuracy.” Should you snooze before or after physical activity? Turns out, both have benefits. “Growth hormone levels spike during sleep, suggesting it is an opportune time for muscles and connective tissue to repair itself, so a nap following physical training might help jump-start the process of muscle repair,” she says. Here are 13 sleep tips for when you have insomnia.

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Napping sharpens sensory perception

You’ve probably had the feeling of your eyes being tired when you need sleep, and you might have even felt like your ears are more sensitive to noise. “The development of many sensory skills depends on the brain being able to form new neural connections, which might be strengthened and stabilized during sleep,” McDevitt says. “Sleep might also help our systems filter out distracting sensory information that bombards us.” Your senses can feel fatigue, but a mid-day slumber can give them a restorative rest. This might be especially useful for perceptual skills, like a radiologist spotting tumors in medical images, or differentiating between similar auditory tones, like a musician might do.

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Naps enhance creativity

Napping can boost your performance in general—but it can specifically bolster your creativity. “When a computer stops working well because it is overloaded with too many open files, rebooting it clears away the clutter and the computer functions better,” Dr. Shane says. “When you nap or sleep, that ‘reboots’ your brain, clearing away the clutter.” This may help explain why when you “sleep on it,” even for a short nap, you suddenly have solutions and new ideas. Dr. Shane says that longer naps, which allow people to enter the dream REM state, have helped performance on creative problem-solving tests. This boost might be why Google has installed “nap pods” for its workers. To get the most out of your nap, wear an eye mask and earplugs, and set your cell phone alarm. Next, check out secrets to sleep doctors want you to know.

Sources
Medically reviewed by Michael Spertus, MD, on March 09, 2020