Bring back the siesta.
It turns out that toddlers are not the only ones who do better after an afternoon nap. New research has found that young adults who slept for 90 minutes after lunch raised their learning power, their memory apparently primed to absorb new facts.
Other studies have indicated that sleep helps consolidate memories after cramming, but the new study suggests that sleep can actually restore the ability to learn.
The findings, which have not yet been published, were presented Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego.
“You need to sleep before learning, to prepare your brain, like a dry sponge, to absorb new information,” said the lead investigator, Matthew P. Walker, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley.
The study recruited 39 healthy young adults and divided them into two groups. All 39 were asked to learn 100 names and faces at noon, and then to learn a different set of names and faces at 6 p.m. But 20 of the volunteers who slept for 90 minutes between the two learning sessions improved their scores by 10 percent on average after sleeping; the scores of those who didn’t nap actually dropped by 10 percent.
Dr. Court’s Comments
This truly is good news! The fact that napping is good for the brain was something Dr. Carrie and I were sure was true while we were in chiropractic school. We had class from roughly 7 AM until 3 or 4 PM with an hour for lunch and an hour for club meetings. These meetings were generally academic in nature, so the class load was quite high. We took every chance we had to get some extra sleep because we were often up late studying and needed to get up early to be at class by 7. We did not, however, have 90 minutes to sleep. More like 20….or 30.
The naps did help when we had the chance to get them and know we know why. This study shows that neurons in the brain need rest just like a muscle needs rest to function at its best. This is something I routinely tell my patients when they are rehabbing their brains. I specifically tell them not to perform their exercises when they’re tired or hungry. Neurons that are fatigued or do not have enough energy supply are more apt to fail and cause more problems.
Obviously, not all of us have time to take a 90 minute nap in the middle of the day. The best way to get the most out of our brains is to sleep well at night. This means keeping good sleep habits. These include:
- Getting to bed at a regular hour every night and waking at a regular hour every morning. This helps to maintain the natural circadian rhythm of many of the hormones in the body. Sometimes when these hormones are disturbed, sleep becomes difficult.
- Keeping at much light out of your bedroom as possible. No one should have a television in their room. I know many patients use it to “fall asleep” but it is not an effective tool for most. Even the light from your alarm clock is enough to stop the production of the neurotransmitter melatonin. My suggestion is to take a magazine or a small piece of cardboard and cover up the light coming from the clocks in your room. The darker the room the better.
- Avoiding things that might disrupt sleep like alcohol and caffeine before bed. Caffeine is a stimulant and there’s a reason people drinking it when they wake up. Alcohol, a depressant that usually makes people sleepy, has a rebound effect that can actually wake you 2-4 hours after you go to sleep. It is not an effective way to manage insomnia as some people use it for.
- Lose weight if you need to. Being overweight increases the risk of sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that causes a person to stop breathing at night. This cessation of breathing can cause a person to wake up unknowingly, sometimes hundreds of times per night. If you know you have sleep apnea, get a CPAP machine. CPAP stands for Constant Positive Airway Pressure. Basically the machine keeps you throat open so air can pass uninterrupted into your lungs.
Of course if you need to take a nap and you have the time, indulge yourself! It is good for your brain. But remember the nap should supplement your positive sleep habits and should not serve as a replacement.