The No. 1 Way to Beat the Afternoon Drag

It happens like clockwork most days...

Around 3:30 in the afternoon, I get very sleepy and my day's work begins to drag. My brain starts to work a little slower. My eyelids feel heavy and dare me to close them. And the thoughts I tend to slip away into a mental quicksand. I certainly can't do math or finance at 3 p.m. like I can at 8:30 a.m...

I know I'm not the only one who experiences this afternoon drag. I often soldier through my sleepiness. However, science and research tells me that what I really should do at this time is take a nap.

There are two main things going on that bring about this midday slump. The first is a post-lunch production of insulin. Insulin is secreted by the pancreas to take the sugars from the food you just ate out of your bloodstream and move it into our cells, where it becomes glycogen. The release of insulin also triggers the amino acid tryptophan to travel to your brain and start our second mechanism of action: the production of serotonin and melatonin. The presence of these two hormones make you feel calm and sleepy.

So, why do we fight this very natural inclination to doze off? Simply put, our society is not structured in a way that allows us to take an afternoon nap between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. – which is when this naturally occurs. Many of us are still at work and may not get a chance to relax until an hour or two before it's time for bed.

Don't fight your body and its drive. Find ways to create nap space for yourself.

It turns out, afternoon naps improve your mental agility. That afternoon shut eye improves your brain's ability to think quickly and with ease.

A recent study in China observed 2,214 people aged 60 and older... The participants were put into one of two groups: those who napped regularly and those who did not. All of the participants were then given three cognitive assessments: the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, the Mini-Mental State Examination, and the Neuropsychological Test Battery.

The researchers found that those who regularly napped significantly outperformed the other participants on tests of cognitive function. Statistically significant differences were observed in the areas of orientation, language function, digit span (short term memory performance using numbers – like remembering a phone number), and language fluency.

The researchers also suggest that napping can have positive effects on your immune system, too. This is because napping helps to regulate the body's response to inflammation through the release of cytokines. Cytokines help our cells to communicate with each other to repair areas of the body that are experiencing inflammation, infection, or trauma.

So, why is it the case that napping helps your brain function? Well, recall there are two sides, or hemispheres, of our brain... the right brain controls the left side of the body and performs tasks that have to do with creativity. The left brain controls the right side of the body and performs tasks that have to do with logic.

When we nap, the right side of our brain remains active while the left side sleeps. It is thought that the right side of the brain uses this time to do some housekeeping... It clears your temporary memory storage by pushing information into your long-term memory.

When you sleep at night, your brain stores memories, specifically during periods of slow-wave sleep. Slow-wave sleep (also called delta wave sleep) occurs in the third stage of non-rapid eye movement sleep, just before rapid eye movement begins (which is when we dream). This third stage of non-rapid eye movement sleep is considered critical for restorative sleep when the body is able to recover and grow.

Researchers think there are different types of naps and that each type serves a different purpose:

  • The Recovery Nap: This type of nap helps you compensate for sleep loss the night before.
  • The Prophylactic Nap: This kind of nap is taken in preparation for future sleep loss.
  • The Appetitive Nap: These naps are taken for the pure enjoyment of napping.
  • The Fulfillment Nap: Common for children, who have greater sleep needs than adults.
  • The Essential Nap: This type of napping happens when you're sick and you need to sleep in order to support your immune system.

There is also an optimal amount of time for napping. Five minutes is considered too short, and thirty minutes may be too long (for some – because it allows your body to enter into deep sleep and you may wake up groggier). Napping for 10 to 20 minutes is considered ideal.

Here are some tips on how to take the best nap:

  1. Set an alarm – Sleeping for 10 to 20 minutes will allow you to enjoy some restorative sleep without feeling drowsy upon waking. Do what I do and set your alarm for 20 minutes maximum. If you still feel out of it, hit the snooze for another 5, but that's it. You will quickly feel alert and productive, once you've thrown your feet back on the floor and sit up, ready to finish your day, fully napped...
  2. Nap early in the day – This way, your napping won't interfere with your bedtime. Try napping around the midway point between when you wake up in the morning and when you plan to fall asleep for bed. So, if you awaken at 6 a.m., and go to bed at 10 p.m., nap at 2 p.m.
  3. Create a sleep friendly environment – Sleep in a space that is dark, cool, quiet, and comfortable.
  4. Set aside your worries – Stressful thoughts will keep you awake. Try some deep breathing and relaxation techniques to calm yourself into a good nap.
  5. Reflect on why you're napping – Think about what you hope to gain from your nap. Set an intention and plan your nap around those goals.

So, let yourself nap. You've earned it and you deserve it.

What We're Interneting...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
February 9, 2021