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Napping to Feed the Brain

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Dennis Drabelle
Book World Editor
Tuesday, April 29, 2008; 11:00 AM

Sleeping during the day isn't just for babies and the elderly. The brain food napping provides can be of use at all ages. Slipping into slumber for a few minutes can improve productivity at work and enhance creativity.

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Book World Contributing Editor Dennis Drabelle, was online Tuesday, April 29, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the importance of napping during the day.

A transcript follows

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Dennis Drabelle: Welcome to a discussion on napping (and sleep questions generally, if you wish). I hope everybody stays awake. I also want to remind you that I'm not a doctor, so I will probably have to say something like "Go talk to your doctor about this" from time to time. I'm just a guy who has developed a keen interest in sleep--largely, I think, because I suffer from insomnia--and looked into the science and literature of sleep. An informed amateur, if you will.

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Alexandria, Va: I get bad headaches (not quite migraines, but close) about once a month. The only thing that "cures" them is a nap. Do you know anything about naps/sleep and how they relieve headaches?

Dennis Drabelle: This question sounds pretty medical, so I will only say that, for me, getting too little sleep causes headaches. Napping doesn't always cure them, but sometimes it helps. I think in those cases it's just a question of catching up on the sleep we've lost.

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Bethesda, Md: Question comes to mind, what constitutes a good length of a nap?

Dennis Drabelle: This is a tough one. The best I can do is repeat something from this morning's article--that 90 minutes is about the outer limit for most people. After that, you run the risk of intruding upon the sleep you get later that night. Sara Mednick would recommend the full 90 minutes, I think, because she wants people to go through all phases of sleep in the course of the nap, but 90 minutes isn't always practical, especially of course in the workplace. Otherwise, I think each person should experiment. One mystery to me is why a 20-minute nap (my usual) leaves me feeling refreshed when I wake up on some days, but feeling like I've just been hit by a train on other days. There is a lot that scientists--and we layfolk, too--still have to learn about napping.

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Beaver Island, Mich.: I've never been able to take a nap. In my mind there is just something about it that is "not productive" when there is just so much to do. How can I tell myself to stop and take a short nap?

Dennis Drabelle: This is a stumbling block for many people, but the way around it is to remember that napping should increase your productivity. In other words, it's an investment. It wrongheaded, I would argue, to think that putting your money into a good stock (if there is such a thing these days) ties up that money. But that's the very nature of investing. You do something with your money (or yourself) that takes it out of circulation in order to achieve a greater good down the line: an increase in your money or an increase in your ability to be productive and think clearly and creatively. I hope that helps.

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Cleveland: I'm a bad napper. It takes me too long to fall asleep. To get in a nap, I'd likely need 10-15 minutes just to fall asleep. Not very practical. (I'm not stressed, I just don't pass out as soon as my head hits a pillow, like some people.) Is napping still recommended for someone like me, who doesn't take to it naturally?

Dennis Drabelle: It's a shame, but I know what you mean. Unless I have exercised and eaten lunch, I have trouble napping, too. I imagine that I would fall asleep eventually, but I agree with you, 15 minutes is too long as a precursor to sleep. Maybe the way to shorten the time, though, is to do what I do -- take some exercise and or a meal first.

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DC: Two months into my consulting job, I was offered full-time employment and I happily accepted. On my first day as a full-time staffer, I woke with this year's horrible flu. For two weeks, I went to work, tried not to pass out in meetings and napped often under my desk (it's very comfortable; thank goodness I have my own office). Now that I'm healthy, I much prefer to spend my lunch break (when I can swing one) on the treadmill (sitting all day is incredibly tiring). While I love napping, for me they are more of a decadent treat (unless I'm sick) than an energizer. Makes me wonder if our need for naps would be mitigated by getting a good night's sleep. I'm very strict with myself about mine; even a good nap isn't the same as a solid night's rest.

Dennis Drabelle: Sara Mednick, the goddess of napping, believes they are right for everybody. I'm not sure I would go that far (and the younger me was pretty dismissive of napping), but more and more studies seem to show good effects and correlations from napping. If you prefer not to, that's obviously your choice, but I would try to keep an open mind and watch and see if more studies come along showing more good effects.

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Gaithersburg, Md: Why does it take Americans to figure things out last? Napping is known world wide to be beneficial, but Americans on the productivity band wagon don't get it. Why?

Dennis Drabelle: I think the Protestant ethic is partly responsible, along with a dash of Puritanism. Napping has traditionally been viewed as unproductive, self-indulgent, the habit of losers. And there is a vulnerability to being asleep that some of us don't much appreciate, especially in a workplace context. The mind-set seems to be changing, though. It just takes time and a steady stream of scientific studies to hammer the truth home.

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can't stay awake: I certainly agree napping is beneficial, even necessary. I work at a computer all day and if I'm sitting quietly at the computer, I tend to doze off in the afternoon. I can be asleep and dreaming sitting upright at my computer for only two or three minutes before I hear someone nearby and snap out of it. Guess that means I'm sleep deprived? Or just bored? No way will our office officially sanction naps though, so I guess I'll have to keep getting two minute naps in when necessary.

Dennis Drabelle: From what you say, you may not be sleep-deprived or bored, but perfectly normal. Remember Churchill's dictum from my article--that the human system just ain't built to last 16 straight hours without a respite of unconsciousness? That seems more and more like what is (or should be) the norm, and the practice of limiting sleep to eight nightly hours only is looking like an industrial-era aberration.

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Virginia: Hi Dennis,

I'm writing this operating on about four hrs' sleep last night and five hrs' on Sunday night...the result of a teething toddler. A nap sounds wonderful -- but impossible at my work. Is there any way to rest my brain without actually falling asleep? Turn off the lights and meditate for 5 minutes?

Dennis Drabelle: Meditation is certainly worth a try. At the sleep conference I mentioned in the piece, even that stalwart among napsters, Dr. Mednick, admitted, "There is a lot to be said for meditation."

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Silver Spring, Md: For years I have been napping to relieve fatigue from Lyme Disease. One of my favorite methods is Yoga Nidra. Can you give any insights to what it is?

Thanks,

Ann

Dennis Drabelle: Sorry, but I have never heard of yoga nigra.

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Granada, Spain: Just a comment about the Spanish siesta system. I've noticed that the Spanish system of working in the morning, eating a big meal at 2PM, napping, and then working a bit more in the evening works well for me. In the US, I've always found my coffee wears off about 2, and the afternoon has never been too productive for me. The Spanish system counteracts this problem perfectly.

Dennis Drabelle: I once spent a month in Barcelona and couldn't adjust to the Spanish system. My friend and I would get hungry in the early evening and want to go out for a meal. We would wait and wait and show up at the restaurant at 8--and be the only customers, not just then but for the next hour or so. Finally, as we would be leaving at 9:30 or 10, spaniards would start showing up. The problem, though,is that as Spaniards began not going home for siesta and not using it to nap, they weren't cutting back on their zesty love for night life. The result (this is purely anecdotal, but several friends who were there say the same thing) is that by age 40 a lot of partying Spaniards look like wrecks.

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Boston: How would you control what kind of dreams you have when napping? i don't want the people in their cubicles to be disturbed by anything i do when I'm dreaming. (I tend to smack things around sometimes.)

Dennis Drabelle: This is a case where you should probably talk to someone. Preferably a doctor who knows something about sleep. There are people who do wild and crazy things while asleep (I met a man the other night who has to wear gloves of some sort lest he clout his wife in bed), and it may take medication to control this. Your situation doesn't sound that bad, but it might be worth looking into.

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Alexandria, Cameron ES, Mr. Miles 5th grade class: How does sleeping during the middle of the day help the brain and productivity? Is it the same for 11 year olds?

Dennis Drabelle: The help comes from giving your brain a rest, the same as you would a muscle after using it to exercise for a while. Rest is a refreshing process that, according to studies, helps us come out of it fired up to be more productive and creative than we were in our fatigued state beforehand. There is no reason to think 11 year-olds wouldn't profit from naps, though I have to admit I never took naps at that age.

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L'enfant Terrible: Would you mind sending an email to my boss? He just doesn't understand that... taking naps... is a good.......-SNORE

Dennis Drabelle: Show your boss my article and tell him to get with it!

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Southern Maryland: I'm all for napping, but I work in DC five days a week and have to get up at 5:30 am to get a commuter bus; my work day is 13 hours long and am fortunate to catch a few winks on the bus ride. However, on weekends in the midst of running errands, yard work, trips to the vet, grocery shopping and everything else, I try to take a nap mid-afternoon. I have a black sleep mask and I get into comfy clothes, turn on the answering machine and slip under the covers for at least an hour or two. When I wake up I'm energized and rearing to finish my endless chores. I highly recommend naps to anyone and if somebody says you're lazy, tell them 'It's my house, I'll do whatever I want inside it.'

Dennis Drabelle: The point you make is a good one. One of the reasons why so many Americans report not sleeping enough is that their workday is extended by a few hours thanks to a long commute. In other words, sleeping too little is in part a function of the way we live now. I myself hate commuting and have always tried to live fairly close to my workplace, but I realize that's not possible or desirable for everyone. So doing what this person does--napping whenever possible--may be the best solution.

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Tours, France: If I nap during the day, I can't sleep well during the night.

Dennis Drabelle: Try taking a short one--just 15 minute or so--and see what happens. In my own case, I nap in bed on my back, a position I never assume at night. By and by, I snore in that position, and my snores wake me up, usually after about 15 minutes.

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Anonymous: Mr. Drabelle,

How long should the midday nap be and is this nap counted with the eight-hour sleep per night or should you still strive for eight hours sleep each night plus the midday nap. I am a 69-year-old retired female who is pretty active around my home during the day. I walk four miles (approx one hour) each day and take care of the indoor and outdoor chores around the house. Sometimes I do feel like a nap and have done so around 2 o'clock waking around 4 o'clock. Dolores

Dennis Drabelle: You sound very dutiful about this, as if someone has assigned you eight hours of sleep a night and you don't want to come in over or under that figure. The amount of sleep that people need varies considerably. Some can get by quite well on six hours, some need eleven. So you should find out what you need by experimenting. Same with the length of your naps. Again, 90 minutes seems to be about as much as most people can spend napping without robbing themselves of sleep that night. But I would listen more to my mind and body than to some preconceived notion that you must have 8 hours per day.

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Anonymous: Generally, diabetics are encouraged to skip siesta. Is there any significance as far as medically concerned? If not, can they dose off for 45 minutes or so.

Dennis Drabelle: I've never heard that about diabetics, but this is one of those medical ponds into which I'd better not set foot. Ask your doctor.

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Alexandria, Cameron ES, Mr. Miles 5th grade class: How does this study apply to kids between the ages of 7 and 18. Nap time stops sometime during kindergarden. If kids between these ages were allowed to sleep for 60 to 90 minutes a day, would their productivity and test scores improve?

Dennis Drabelle: So far as I know, there have been no studies singling out kids of this age and the effects of napping. I wonder if it isn't a moot point, though. I have never know a kid of that age who napped on anywhere near a regular basis. What has been shown by several studies is that kids in mid to later teenage years have a different daily biological clock than older people, such that making them start classes earlier than about 9 a.m. is not advisable. I've read that several school districts have changed their schedules accordingly.

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WV Commuter: I commute to DC on the train, and generally get a decent nap in the morning (5:30-7:15am) and again in the evening (5:15-7pm). The train's motion rocks me right to sleep, even if I try to stay awake. Without those naps I have a hard time making it through the day and evening without snapping at someone. In my younger days, before our move to the DC area, I used to go out to my car at lunch time and take a nap on an almost daily basis. I locked the doors, cracked the windows, and turned the radio on low. I usually slept for 45 minutes and woke up feeling great - usually right before the alarm rang. It can be done either way!

Dennis Drabelle: Yes, I find train-riding to be napalicious! Not so much with plane rides, though.

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nodding off in DC: I find I nap during the afternoon even if I don't want to - like it's just programmed in me or I'm narcoleptic or something. Does this sound healthy or worrisome? (BTW if I go out in the sun during the day, I definitely nod off soon after.) Thanks!

Dennis Drabelle: It does sound like narcolepsy. I would mention it to your doctor.

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Dennis Drabelle: Thanks for some excellent questions. I enjoyed--and learned from--this very much.

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