Do Catnaps Help?

Good question — if you’re consistently tired each day (problem number one), do catnaps help you get the rest and rejuvenation you need?

An entrepreneur in New York City saw enough profit potential in sleepy, working adults that he opened Yelo Nap, where for $12 sleep-deprived individuals can go for a nap during the workday. The owner says it’s about the cost of a sandwich at lunch and well worth the investment.

But is there science behind napping?

First, let’s see what happens when you are sleep deprived. A study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison used sleep-deprived rats, who were kept awake by constant stimulation through toys and cage-based challenges and who were wired to electroencephalogram devices, to measure the effects of lack of sleep.

What the team found was that subsets of the rats’ cortex neurons switched off, seemingly at random, in various locations. The electrical profiles of these tired neurons showed “slow wave” activity, resembling neurons throughout the cortex during nonrapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep, which makes up about 80 percent of all sleep.

When the rats were then offered sugar tablets to grab and eat as a performance challenge, the team found that they performed 38 percent less well than they did when they were fully rested.

“Such tired neurons in an awake brain may be responsible for the attention lapses, poor judgment, mistake-proneness and irritability that we experience when we haven’t had enough sleep, yet don’t feel particularly sleepy,” Dr. Giulio Tononi, team leader, explains. “Strikingly, in the sleep-deprived brain, subsets of neurons go offline in one cortex area but not in another — or even in one part of an area and not in another.”

Back to the Yelo Nap guy: He’s doing fine because in a high-stress metropolis like Manhattan, there are plenty of people burning their candles at both ends. Still, will catnaps actually help these sleep-deprived individuals?

Various studies answer in the affirmative, but sleep experts warn that daytime napping might lead to a vicious cycle in which naps contribute to inability to sleep at night, especially for people with insomnia. Such people need professional help.

But now for the good news:

A study at the University of California found that test-takers who were allowed a nap beforehand did significantly better than those who weren’t. The study leader, Dr Matthew Walker, says napping works well beyond helping one catch up on lost sleep: “At a neuro-cognitive level, it moves you beyond where you were before you took a nap.”

Another study of pilots showed that allowing 26-minute naps (while the co-pilot or pilot manned the vessel) improved performance by 34 percent and enhanced alertness by 54 percent.

And a six-year study in Greece showed that those people who took 30-minute naps at least three times a week were 37 percent safer from the risk of heart-related death.

So, yes, catnaps can definitely help, but if you’re consistently unable to sleep — or you snore incessantly or suffer from sleep apnea — you need to seek professional help.

For the rest of you, “nighty-night” in the daytime.

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