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People Who Take Regular Daytime Naps Tend to Have Bigger, Healthier Brains, Study Finds

A siesta actually sounds pretty great right about now.

By Maggie Seaver

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Historically, napping advice has felt inconsistent, complicated, and very conditional. Napping is bad for you—it throws off your nightly sleep cadence and it means you’re lazy! Napping is good for you—humans used to sleep in segmented phases before the dawn of the Industrial Era!1 Nap if you need it—but if you need to nap too often, it’s a sign of something deeper and more concerning!

Never mind that some people find it physically impossible to snooze during the day—or that most people who would happily nap every day have neither the time nor the means to do it.

The general napping consensus seems to be that planned napping can be healthy, helpful, or, at the very least, harmless for those who need to catch up on sleep during the day—as long as, a) naps are kept on the shorter side (20 to 30 minutes, or no longer than 90 minutes—to accommodate one full, adequate sleep cycle); and, b) naps aren’t taken too late in the day or close to nighttime sleep.

A study in the journal Sleep Health, published in June 2023, explored another perk of regular power naps beyond logging additional sleep: that they can be positively linked to brain health.2

Nappers Appear to Have Larger Total Brain Volume

Researchers at the University College London and the University of the Republic in Uruguay examined the relationship between regular daytime napping and cognition. These two factors have been associated via observational studies in the past. For example, this paper points to 2009 research findings that a brief, 15-minute-ish nap appears “beneficial to performance on certain cognitive tasks” immediately following said nap.

But the study’s authors wanted to know more: Is daytime napping a direct cause of healthy cognition and larger brain volume in individuals who do it regularly, compared to non-nappers?

The team used a method called Mendelian randomization to analyze the genetic data of more than 375,000 participants from the UK Biobank study. Looking at several DNA snippets thought to be associated with habitual napping, they compared the cognitive health and brain structure (with MRI brain scans) of people who have these frequent-napping gene variations to those who do not.2

The short answer, concluded from their research, is that more studies are needed to prove that habitual daytime naps are causally associated with improved brain health (meaning, they did not yet prove that daytime naps = a healthier brain, and for what exact reason).2

However, their analysis showed a clear, positive link between napping and cognitive health, most notably including visible differences in total brain volume, which declines with age and influences cognitive ability.2

Brain scans showed that those who nap regularly had overall larger brains by an average of about 15 cubic centimeters. Therefore, habitual nappers’ brains were about the equivalent of 2.6 to 6.5 years “younger” than non-nappers’ brains.2

When and How Long to Nap

So what’s the ideal time of day to nap—and how long should that nap be? This study does not name its own nap prescription, but refers to previous studies recommending that shorter naps of 20 to 30 minutes, taken sometime between 12 p.m. and 4 p.m., “provide recovery of alertness via dissipation of sleep homeostatic pressure,” as well as benefits for memory consolidation, according to a 2022 systemic review.3 They add, pointing to a 2015 study, that the “post-lunch dip period [may be] the most favorable time to take a nap to overcome the temporary drop in alertness and performance evidence during this period.”4

If you need some sleep and have the time to sleep in the early afternoon, this is officially your sign to stop feeling “guilty” or “lazy” and shut your eyes.

Courtesy: Real Simple

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Coverpage’s editorial stance.



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