The right way to take a nap

There’s (brain) power in an afternoon nap — but not all naps are created equal. Here, experts share the right way to snooze to keep your brain sharp.

Senior female taking a nap in bed

There’s nothing like a midday nap to recharge your batteries. It can give you more energy to do the things you love. But the perks go even further: A nap can be good for your brain

“Sleep and naps are the ultimate form of self-care, allowing us to take care of our bodies and enjoy our wake time more,” says sleep specialist Rafael Pelayo, M.D., of Stanford Sleep Medicine Center in Redwood City, California. (So, if you ever feel guilty about lying down for a quick snooze, don’t!) 

Naps can help reset your brain by allowing it to do some maintenance work, says Dr. Pelayo. “When you take a nap, the brain is more engaged afterward and ready to do whatever’s next, whether it’s spending time with the grandkids, socializing with friends, or playing a game of pickleball.” 

Besides giving you that extra pick-me-up, napping may even protect your brain from age-related decline. But there’s actually a right way to nap to get the best brain benefits.  

Here’s what the science shows, plus five ways to get the most out of an afternoon siesta. 

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Why sleep changes with age 

We tend to take naps because we feel fatigued. This often comes from not getting adequate sleep at night, a common problem affecting older adults.  

“Sleep tends to change as we age. It can take longer to fall asleep, and there’s a higher likelihood of nighttime wakefulness,” says Kristina Balangue, M.D., clinical assistant professor in geriatric medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix.  

In fact, older adults wake up an average of three to four times a night. They also spend less time in a deep sleep state, according to the National Institutes of Health. 

Nighttime sleep problems can stem from a variety of causes, notes Dr. Balangue. These include: 

  • Depression 
  • Having chronic pain 
  • Breathing disorders 
  • Sleep apnea 
  • Certain medications (diuretics, some pain and anxiety medications)  

These issues can all affect the quality and duration of your sleep. 

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How napping can help your brain 

When your brain is tired, you may feel fuzzy the next day. You’re more likely to have trouble concentrating, absorbing information, solving problems, and making decisions. You might have slower reaction times, which can increase the risk of accidents or falls. 

That’s where the post-lunch nap comes in. Research has shown that it can help improve brain function. A 2021 study found that people ages 60 and older who took an afternoon nap showed improvements in memory tests, compared to non-nappers. These naps lasted at least five minutes but no longer than two hours. 

Another recent study found that naps lasting less than 30 minutes reduced the risk of cognitive decline in people 65 and older. And new research from University College London found that napping may delay the rate at which our brains shrink as we get older. 

Why is that important? As a person ages, certain parts of the brain shrink, including those that help with learning and memory. But naps may actually increase the size of your brain! This is called brain volume. The bigger your brain volume, the sharper your cognition.  

The kind of naps that are bad for your brain 

Before you slip into that cozy living room chair for a quick rest, know this: Some studies show that if naps are too long, they may actually harm the brain. 

One study discovered that older men who napped for two or more hours a day had a higher chance of becoming cognitively impaired over the next 12 years. That was in comparison to those who napped for less than 30 minutes a day. 

Extended daytime napping might also increase the risk of stroke. In a Chinese study, people who took naps longer than 90 minutes were 25% more likely to have a stroke than those who didn’t nap or kept their nap breaks to under an hour.  

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5 tips for taking a healthy nap 

Here’s how to ensure that naps will work in your — and your brain’s — favor. 

1. Nap in the afternoon. “Plan your nap after lunch when the body’s biological clock has a natural dip in alertness levels,” says Dr. Pelayo. “A good rule of thumb is to take your nap six to seven hours before your usual bedtime. So, if you go to bed at 10 p.m., take your nap at 3 p.m.” 

It’s best to nap between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Any later, and your midday snooze could interfere with normal sleep-wake cycles.  

That means you might have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep during the night. And that can make you feel sleepy the next day. “Ideally, older adults should get anywhere between seven and nine hours of sleep a night,” says Dr. Pelayo.   

2. Create a restful environment. Choose a quiet, dark, comfy spot for your siesta. To help yourself get into nap mode, steer clear of bright light and loud noise. Also, keep the room temperature cool.  

If you need assistance falling asleep, Dr. Balangue recommends using blackout curtains, earplugs, or an eye mask. Or try calming music or ambient sounds such as rain, crickets, or ocean waves. 

3. Set an alarm. Keep your nap to 40 minutes or less, recommends Dr. Pelayo. “More than that can cause you to wake up feeling fuzzy or too groggy.”  

This feeling, also known as sleep inertia, can affect your attention and thinking. 

4. Have a cup of coffee beforehand. It may sound counterproductive. But downing a cup of joe before a power nap can help you feel sharper afterward, according to the Sleep Foundation.  

Why? The caffeine blocks adenosine, a chemical that builds up during the day to make you sleepy. If you drink coffee right before you nap, the caffeine will clear out the adenosine as you slumber. When you wake, you’ll feel refreshed and more alert.  

5. Don’t stress if you can’t fall asleep. It can be frustrating when you can’t seem to make a nap happen. But simply closing and resting your eyes, breathing deeply, and relaxing can be enough to quiet your mind.  

So, go ahead, add a short nap to your schedule a few times a week. Your brain will thank you for it.   

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Additional sources: 

Sleep and aging: National Institutes of Health
Study on napping and memory: General Psychiatry
Study on daytime napping in older adults: BMC Geriatrics
Study on naps and alertness: International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
Study on napping and cognitive decline: Alzheimer’s & Dementia
Study on napping and stroke: Neurology
Coffee and naps: Sleep Foundation