Why taking a nap in the afternoon might improve your mental agility

Some experts warn that longer naps might be a sign that a person is not getting adequate night-time sleep. Picture: Pexels.

Some experts warn that longer naps might be a sign that a person is not getting adequate night-time sleep. Picture: Pexels.

Published Jan 26, 2023


The afternoon nap has a bad reputation.

Siestas are sometimes seen as a symptom of indolence, poor vitality or even disease. However, a recent study, titled “Relationship Between Afternoon Napping and Cognitive Performance in the Ageing Chinese Population”, reveals that if you’re over 60, taking a nap in the afternoon might help you stay intellectually sharp.

Researchers found that older persons who slept in the afternoon performed better on a cognitive test than those who didn’t nap.

The research, which was published in the journal General Psychiatry, examined the physical and mental health of 2 214 seniors living in China’s major cities. Most of them (1 534) regularly slept in the afternoon whereas 680 did not.

The Mini Mental State Exam (MMSE), a standardised dementia screening test that includes evaluations of visuospatial skills, attention span, problem-solving, working memory, locational awareness, and verbal fluency, was used in the observational study to determine that the nappers scored “significantly higher”.

According to the study, which was directed by Dr Lin Sun, of the Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Center at the Shanghai Mental Health Center and Shanghai Jiao Tong University, nappers fared particularly well in the later three categories.

The ability to learn has a lot to do with how well you sleep, says Zevo Health’s health director Davina Ramkissoon.

“Sleeping helps your brain recuperate from exhaustion or information overload. Your brain purges useless information from its temporary storage locations when you sleep in order to make room for new knowledge to be processed.”

The benefits extend beyond acuity.

Nappers and non-nappers in the research group slept an average of 6.5 hours a night. Any time after lunch, taking an afternoon nap was defined as sleeping for at least five minutes straight but no longer than two hours.

“We questioned nappers on how frequently they took naps on a normal week. There were once-weekly to everyday responses. The fact that participants were not questioned about how long or at what exact time of day they slept constituted a study flaw.”

Katherine Hall, a sleep coach at Somnus, a guided sleep treatment programme, says: “An ideal, healthy nap should be taken in the afternoon between 1pm and 3pm and last anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes.

“There are many advantages to be enjoyed if you can take a nap in the afternoon. The research indicates that taking naps helps reduce stress and anxiety while increasing mood, energy and productivity.“

An afternoon nap might help you feel refreshed and prepared to take on the remainder of the day, without experiencing “sleep inertia”, which is the sensation of confusion, disorientation and grogginess that some people experience after awakening.

Evidence shows that sleeping for this length, say 60 minutes, might help your learning, says Hall, if you’re able to sleep for that long.

Your brain will begin to move memories from the hippocampus, which serves as a temporary holding area, to the cortex, which serves as their permanent residence throughout the extended snooze.

Not all naps are healthy.

According to a 2009 Pew Research Center poll, more than a third of South Africans snooze daily.

While studies have demonstrated that afternoon naps increase mental agility, it is unclear whether napping helps stop cognitive loss as people age, says Dr Abhinav Singh, a sleep medicine specialist and member of the SleepFoundation.org medical review panel.

Anyone can profit from a little sleep in the middle of the day, especially if it coincides with their natural circadian drop, says Singh.

Short (less than 30 minutes or so) naps have been demonstrated to boost mood for the remainder of the day, enhance alertness and improve cognitive function.

Longer naps, though, might be harmful, he warns. Two hours, Singh says, “suggests that more dysfunction may be concealed and is driving the need for additional sleeping”.

It might be a symptom that your quality or amount of sleep at night is inadequate if you regularly find yourself taking naps longer than an hour.

“Numerous sleep problems might be obstructing your ability to get enough or good quality sleep. Poor sleeping patterns could also be a factor. This is frequently observed in the modern era of screens, bright lights, and lengthy workdays.“

Singh says medical issues and/or drugs used to treat them can have an effect on the quantity and quality of sleep in the elderly.

“Sleep quality may be significantly impacted by some blood pressure drugs, medications for arthritis, muscle relaxants, and some medications for mental health.”

Singh adds that additional study is required to understand whether the demand for more sleep, including longer naps, is an indication that the body is trying to make up for increased inflammation brought on by cognitive loss and dementia.

He asks: “Is the sleep/wake disruption caused by the neurodegenerative change (such as dementia) or the other way around?”