The Power of Naps: The Benefits of Napping We Can Learn From Da Vinci

If you’re like me, you enjoy taking a good nap. And who doesn’t? Some of history’s brightest figures were known to be big time nappers, including Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Leonardo da Vinci.

But while da Vinci was undoubtedly a genius — he was a prolific sculptor, engineer, architect, inventor and painted the Mona Lisa — mirroring his sleep schedule wouldn’t be the smartest move you could make. In fact, I strongly advise against it.

Da Vinci’s quirky sleep schedule is legendary.

As an adult, it’s believed he passionately avoided getting a full night’s sleep. Instead, he was a dedicated napper, taking 20 minute naps every 4 hours throughout the day. This, of course, only adds up to 2 hours of sleep every 24 hours.

His thought process was simple: He thought he couldn’t afford to spend 8 hours sleeping — he had too much to get done and not enough time to do it. At one point, da Vinci famously said “sleep resembles death,” removing all doubt as to how he felt about the topic.

Reading his quote again recently struck a chord with me. It’s certainly relatable; I often feel like I don’t have enough time in the day to get my goals accomplished, and squeezing in a nap can be tricky. At the same time, more and more clients have been asking me about the benefits of napping in recent years — even as they also struggle to find the time for it.

This week I want to touch on the positive aspects of napping, how to take them, and the best times to do it.

Quickly, though, I should point out the issues with da Vinci’s strictly-naps approach. Getting 2 hours of sleep on average each day can soon lead to a number of issues. The effects of sleep deprivation include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Increased risk of heart disease
  • Diminished sex drive
  • Decreased memory
  • Weight gain
  • An inability to focus
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • Fatigue
  • More prone to accidents
  • Weakened immune system

This clearly isn’t the way to go.

Still, da Vinci wasn’t completely wrong, either. There are a number of reasons naps, when coupled with a good night’s sleep, are great for your body and mind. (And if you need help planning your nightly sleep schedule, be sure to use my sleep calculator.) Let’s go over the pros and cons of napping.

The Benefits of Napping

Longer naps between 60 to 90 minutes offer several health benefits, but I also understand it’s difficult to find enough time for a long midday siesta. On the other hand, “power naps,” which take about 20-30 minutes, are more practical and provide a number of worthwhile benefits. Here are a few:

  • Increased Alertness: Short naps increase our awareness level. In one study, NASA found pilots who took naps for about 25 minutes showed a 54% improvement in their alertness compared to pilots who didn’t nap. Those who napped also showed a 34% increase in their job performance.
  • Better Stamina: Naps have been linked to better stamina and athletic performance. Runners, for instance, who took short afternoon naps showed improvements in their endurance levels that were not found in runners who didn’t nap.
  • Reduced Stress: You’re better able to weather stress with a brief nap. Research indicates naps reduce stress and also help moderate blood pressure.
  • Increased Creativity: Power naps have been linked to increased right brain activity — the part of the brain associated with creativity. Naps can facilitate big-picture ideas and help with visualization — two things that can especially come in handy at work.
  • Stronger Immune System: Half-hour naps have been shown to boost production of leukocytes, or white blood cells that help the immune system tackle infectious diseases. This is especially useful in winter, when we’re more vulnerable to catching the common cold and other illnesses.

For more information on how naps are helpful — including how longer naps boost your memory and can help your mood — I wrote about this a few years ago on my blog. You can check it out here.

The Best Time to Nap

There’s a biological reason you’re usually tempted to take naps in the early afternoon. That’s because our bodies are designed to take long stretches of sleep at night, followed by a brief midday rest.
The best time to take a nap is between 1:00-3:00 p.m., when your body temperature drops and your melatonin levels rise. These are the same biological cues your body sends at night when it’s time to go to bed. Not only does taking a nap during this time period sync with our circadian rhythm, it helps counteract the fatigue your body experiences after eating lunch.

And to get the best nap possible, Luminere glasses can be a big help. I personally developed these glasses to block out blue light, something that we deal with all day from our computer and phone screens. Blue light inhibits melatonin production and makes it harder to go to sleep. A pair of Luminere glasses will curb the effects of blue light and give you a headstart on your daily nap. Blue light blocking glasses can also help with eye fatigue from viewing screens all day. People frequently ask me if it is ok to wear them all day and the short answer is yes but only after you’ve gotten a solid twenty minutes of sunlight on your face to stop melatonin production.

How to Nap Effectively

Here are a few things to keep in mind before taking your nap:

  • Find A Quiet Space: Silence is essential. Even dozing off in your car for a few minutes can be a good option.
  • Turn Off Your Phone: You don’t want a text notification nagging at you while you’re trying to rest. Avoid all phone notifications, if possible, while napping.
  • Lower Temperature: A cool space helps your body fall asleep faster.
  • Drink Coffee: A bonus pointer that is counter-intuitive. Caffeine is a stimulant and you certainly want to avoid it before going to bed at night. But drinking a cup of coffee before a power nap helps the body avoid sleep inertia — or falling into deeper stages of sleep — and maximizes alertness for when you wake up.

What to Avoid When Napping

Naps bring a lot to the table, but you don’t want to overdo it. The key is to avoid napping for more than 90 minutes. Excessively long naps throw off your internal sleep/wake rhythm and can interfere with your ability to get a full night of rest. They can also lead to those “where am I?” hazes you sometimes experience when you wake up, and that’s obviously not what you want. A good nap should leave you more alert and ready to tackle the second half of your day. Also be sure to avoid taking your nap too late in the day since it will impact your sleep cycle.

Next Steps

Our understanding of sleep has come a long way in the 501 years since da Vinci passed away.

Yet his strong belief in the power of naps has been proven correct time and time again in recent years. And to his credit, da Vinci actually had half of the equation down: 20-30 minute power naps, as we’ve seen, come with a variety of benefits. He was just missing the other, essential part of the formula, which is getting a full amount of sleep each night.

Luckily, you don’t have to make that same mistake. Finding time for a midday power nap is a great way to jumpstart the second half of your day. You’ll feel refreshed, less stressed, and more alert.

There’s one more thing I wanted to mention before wrapping up. I know it can be tough to bring it to work, but a good pillow makes a big difference whether you’re trying to take a nap after lunch or fall asleep at night. If you are looking for something new, the Everpillow is a great choice. I recommend it because it’s naturally cool, customizable, easily washable, hypoallergenic, and, most importantly, amazingly comfortable. They even have a travel size that fits nicely in a desk drawer or backpack.

That’s it for this week, but before we touch base again next Sunday, be sure to try working a nap into your daily routine. I think you’ll be happy with the natural boost it provides.

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Michael Breus, Ph.D - The Sleep Doctor is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan and Good Night!