Get Refreshed With a Catnap

A 30-minute nap undoes the damage of a poor night’s sleep.

During her adventure racing days, “Queen of Pain” ultraendurance champion Rebecca Rusch and her teammates were limited to about two hours of sleep a night if they wanted to win. They kept biking, hiking, kayaking, and pretty much everything else-ing day after day by taking well-timed, 30-minute naps.

“We’d stop to take our naps when we were stumbling or falling off our bikes and risking our safety or when we couldn’t focus on the mental task of navigation,” she recalls. “The short catnap was a refresher that did wonders for our morale, brain function, and physical capacity. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it on a regular basis, but in extreme situations when you just aren’t resting like you should be, naps like this can buy you time and keep your focus until you get a proper night’s sleep.”

The team had read a few sleep articles as part of their preparation, but mostly arrived at the 30-minute nap limit by trial and error, says Rusch. “If we slept longer, we would wake up more groggy than if we woke up sooner. It was the right amount to leave us feeling focused and rested enough to be safe.”

Research published this week in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism shows they were onto something. In a first-of-its kind study, a team of French scientists found that 30-minute naps might be effective for restoring stress hormone and immunity levels to normal after a night of too little sleep.

In the study, a small group of men underwent two sessions of sleep testing in a lab. In one session, they were restricted to two hours of sleep and had to tough it out the next day. After a recovery period, they returned for another night of sleep deprivation, but this time they were allowed two 30-minute catnaps the following day.

Following a night of woefully short sleep and no naps, the men’s norepinephrine levels spiked to 2 ½ times their normal level. That’s bad, since high levels of this fight-or-flight stress hormone increase blood pressure, blood sugar, and heart rate. The sleepy men also had significantly lower levels of a key infection-fighting protein called interleukin-6.

A little shuteye changed all that. When the men were allowed the two 30-minute naps the following day, their norepinephrine and interleukin-6 levels were normal. The researchers concluded that, “Napping could be easily applied in real settings as a countermeasure to the detrimental health consequences of sleep debt.”

Of course, as Rusch noted, surviving on short sleep and daily naps shouldn’t become your new normal. But it could be a good strategy for keeping healthy—and rolling reasonably strong—when a new baby, travel, crazy deadlines, or other life events leave you temporarily running low on the sleep you need.

Source: Bicycling (www.bicycling.com)

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