Wednesday 7 December 2016

Don't scoff at the power of a nap: Rediscover the proven benefits of power-napping

Sleep guru to the stars Nick Littlehales tells our reporter that eight hours' shut-eye a night really isn't necessary and explains why we need to look at slumber in an entirely different way

Published 08/11/2016 | 02:30

Sleep guru to the stars Nick Littlehales believes we need to look at slumber in an entirely different way
Sleep guru to the stars Nick Littlehales believes we need to look at slumber in an entirely different way
A quick nap can increase energy. Photo: Getty Images

A quick nap has been proven to increase energy and to improve mood and performance. However, British sleep coach Nick Littlehales - the man behind the sleep schedules of many elite athletes and top footballers, including Cristiano Ronaldo - believes that power-napping is often disregarded and even frowned upon in our increasingly turned-on, 24/7 lifestyles.

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"We need to create a redefined approach to sleep," Nick Littlehales says. "Sleep is thought of as something we can do anywhere, anytime, any place and on anything - it's taken for granted and it is not seen as a performance criteria. In sport, we try to redefine that, so you have mental and physical activity and therefore, you need a plan for mental and physical recovery."

"Naps have always been thought of as something older people with a pipe and slippers do while in front of the TV. There is this thinking out there that 'If you snooze, you lose' because there is no education through schooling or parents. People don't know about sleep and about how we require it and how you get it.

"There is this myth of eight hours a night, when I don't meet anybody who gets that or really even tries to get it."

Read more: 15 ways to get an good night's sleep

Nick advocates for looking at sleep in an entirely different way, making it a priority in the same way one might with eating healthily, or hydrating, and setting aside time for 40 winks during the day.

"When I work with athletes, for example, we will look at sleeping in 90-minute cycles rather than in hours, and we look at taking 20-minute and 15-minute naps at key points during the day," Nick explains.

"So, you are looking to get in five 90-minute cycles, but that doesn't necessarily all have to be in one chunk. You can have four cycles at night and then put the fifth cycle into the day as a 30-minute nap.

"If you get good-quality sleep in four cycles all the way through, that can be just as good as spending eight or nine hours sleeping."

So how exactly does one get the most out of a power nap?

"The power of the nap is that rather than over-stimulating with things like coffee or falling into the trap of trying to force yourself to sleep with sleeping tablets, and doing all of these things in a bid to push through, if you just stop at the right time of day and just zone out for that little period, whether it is 15, 20 or ideally 30 minutes, this will increase your alertness and awareness by up to 54pc, and it will give you the boost and the balance of the circadian rhythms that you as a human being need," Nick explains.

"Napping is a much better tool than ramming down four cups of coffee to get you through or taking energy drinks. Just stop and zone out.

"You don't have to tell everybody what you are doing because there is always going to be a danger of people saying, 'Oh they're napping, they can't handle it!'"

"You can even nap in front of people by just zoning out," Nick adds. "You don't need to go to a room with whale noises and essential oils; everybody has got time to do it. What you are doing is having a controlled recovery period, so put the alarm on and just zone out, and whether or not you fall asleep is irrelevant. If you do, fine. If you don't, it doesn't matter, you are zoning out and it will help your brain big time with downloading information and putting things in the right place."

The best time of day to nap, according to Littlehales, is between 1pm and 3pm, or 5pm and 7pm, and while it is possible to nap at one's desk and even in meetings with eyes open, he suggests finding a quiet corner where you can simply 'let go' for 30 minutes.

Littlehales' theory is based on the idea that society has largely moving away from sleeping in one big block at night, known as the monophasic way of resting.

"Monophasic resting was created by the invention of the light bulb," Nick explains. "We shifted to sleep for one long period at night, whereas before that period, we had always slept in short periods at night. And then, because of our circadian rhythms, you would get the midday window between 1pm and 3pm - which is the siesta in Spain and is a completely natural point for us to go to sleep - and between 5pm and 7pm."

"Our relationship with light and dark is determined by our circadian rhythms and triggers two hormones: melatonin, which helps us chill out and relax and sleep; and the other is serotonin, which tells us, 'Wake up, let's go and be active,'" Nick adds. "So the darkness allows us to build melatonin and then the sun comes up, the light comes in and that triggers serotonin.

"In today's world, because we are so surrounded by artificial light, our relationship with light is knocked out of balance. If you don't move into darkness to sleep, for example, all you are doing is keeping serotonin levels high, which is keeping you in a wake state rather than letting you move towards a recovery state.

"For quality sleep, we really need to pay attention to everything we do throughout the day and get balance in our relationship with light."

◼ 'Sleep - The Myth of 8 Hours' by Nick Littlehales, published by Penguin, is out now.

What you should know about sleep

Tips for better sleep

* Take little breaks throughout your day, every 90 minutes or so to just shift your focus away from what you are doing for a few minutes to give your mind a break

* Stay hydrated throughout the day

* Eat well and eat regularly

* Get some exercise

* Embrace power napping. A 15, 20 or ideally 30-minute nap will increase your alertness, allow you to get on through the rest of your day and stop you trying to go to sleep earlier or sleeping in later

* For optimum sleep, ensure your bedroom is in blackout darkness and consider investing in a daylight alarm clock, which will then ease you into the day by recreating a natural sunrise.

Napping research

A study carried out by the University of Düsseldorf in 2008 showed that taking even very short naps can enhance our memory. In 1995, NASA concluded that a 26-minute nap can improve or maintain pilot performance, alertness and mood during long-haul flights.

What are circadian rhythms?

Circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioural changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle and respond primarily to light and darkness in our environment. Circadian rhythms are found in most living things, including humans, plants and animals.

Our circadian rhythms control almost all patterns of biology including brain-wave activity, body temperature, blood pressure, cell regeneration, metabolism and behaviour.

Nick's approach to sleep

"In any given week, I will look to get 35 cycles of sleep or mental and physical recovery. My plan can vary, but it may be to get 30 of these in 90-minute cycles back to back and five of these cycles in shorter 20 or 30-minute slots during the day. So I will slot those in as required."

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