Saturday, July 3, 2010

Power napping, stress management, and jet lag

Many animals take naps during the day. Our ancestors probably napped during the day too. They certainly did not spend as many hours as we do under mental stress. In fact, the lives of our Paleolithic ancestors would look quite boring to a modern human. Mental stress can be seen as a modern poison. We need antidotes for that poison. Power napping seems to be one of them.


Power napping is a topic that I have done some research on, but unfortunately I do not have access to the references right now. I am posting this from Europe, where I arrived a few days ago. Thus I am labeling this post “my experience”. Hopefully I will be able to write a more research-heavy post on this topic in the near future. I am pretty sure that there is a strong connection between power napping and stress hormones. Maybe our regular and knowledgeable commenters can help me fill this gap in their comments on this post.

Surprisingly, jet lag has been only very minor this time for me. The time difference between most of Europe and Texas is about 8 hours, which makes adaptation very difficult, especially coming over to Europe. In spite of that, I slept during much of my first night here. The same happened in the following nights, even though I can feel that my body is still not fully adapted to the new time zone.

How come? I am all but sure that this is a direct result of my recent experience with power napping.

I have been practicing power napping for several months now. Usually in the middle of the afternoon, between 3 and 4 pm, I lie down for about 15 minutes in a sleeping position on a yoga mat. I use a pillow for the head. I close my eyes and try to clear my mind of all thoughts, focusing on my breathing, as in meditation. When I feel like I am about to enter deep sleep, I get up. This usually happens 15 minutes after I lie down. The sign that I am about to enter deep sleep is having incoherent thoughts, like in dreaming. Often I have muscle jerks, called hypnic jerks, which are perfectly normal. Hypnic jerks are also a sign that it is time for me to get up.

After getting up I always feel very refreshed and relaxed. My ability to do intellectual work is also significantly improved. If I make the mistake of going further, and actually entering a deep sleep stage, I get up feeling very groggy and sleepy. So the power nap has to end at around 15 minutes for me. For most people, this time ranges from 10 to 20 minutes. It seems that once one enters a deep sleep phase, it is better to then sleep for at least a few hours.

Power napping is not as easy as it sounds. If one cannot enter a state of meditation at the beginning, the onset of sleep does not happen. You have to be able to clear your mind of thoughts. Focusing on your breathing helps. Interestingly, once you become experienced at power napping, you can then induce actual sleep in almost any situation – e.g., on a flight or when you arrive in another country. That is what happened with me during this trip. Even though I have been waking up at night since I arrived in Europe, I have been managing to go right back to sleep. Previously, in other trips to Europe, I would be unable to go back to sleep after I woke up in the middle of the night.

Power napping seems to also be an effective tool for stress management. In our busy modern lives, with many daily stressors, it is common for significant mental stress to set in around 8 to 9 hours after one wakes up in the morning. For someone waking up at 7 am, this will be about 3 to 4 pm in the afternoon. Power napping, when done right, seems to be very effective at relieving that type of stress.


Anonymous said...

There is a wonderful book by Sara C, Mednick, Ph.D. Take a Nap! Change your life. Get it and read it. It was written after some sleep studies at Harvard. It teaches you how to "power nap". I'm a shift worker and naping on off days has really helped.

Ned Kock said...

Thanks for the book suggestion. Here is the Amazon link:

Overall the book has good reviews.

Winalot said...

I remember seeing a Bruce Parry "Tribe" episode where he followed some HG's on a hunt. They set off into the jungle and just before they started hunting all the guys lie down on the ground and go to sleep! Bruce was wide awake and excited about hunting but the guys said they were tired and needed a snooze before catching prey. After watching many programmes of this ilk it's interesting to see how little activity HG's actually get; quite a sedentary life with bursts of action.

Ellen said...

Oh! the hypnic jerks are normal? I always thought it was a bad sign when it would happen to me (during a daytime nap). I thought they were a sign of anxiety or too much circulating cortisol. Good to read that they're normal.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Winalot.

Interestingly, HGs don't seem to experience a lot of anticipatory anxiety (AA) either.

AA is so common among modern humans. It is essentially stress in anticipation of an activity that is perceived as potentially stressful.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Ellen.

Many people are concerned about hypnic jerks (HJs).

HJs are perfectly normal in the context of falling asleep, but not outside that (fairly narrow) context.

Ellen said...

By the way, Ned... great blog! Love the info you feature.

Michael Barker said...

Senior engineer I worked with had an egg timer that he would set to 20 mins. He would put his head on the desk and NOBODY dared disturb him. He also did it when he drove straight through to Florida from Michigan.

PS Surprised that you have not commented on this: Tibetan Gene Divergence

Anonymous said...

Power napper here. I used to walk at work during lunch time. One day I just decided to get in my car and take a nap (about 20 min). It was amazing how much better I felt, much better than with the walking. I have a sedentary job in front of a computer, and I think the nap gives a much needed rest to the eyes and mind. mari

Ned Kock said...

Hi Michael.

The Discover Mag article does go to show something that I often repeat here on this blog, but that many people don't really think is true.

That is that a genotype can evolve in a population in a very short period of time (relatively speaking), even when selection pressure is relatively small (e.g., a 1 percent reproductive success advantage).

We are talking about hundreds of years, or a few thousand years, not millions of years. I discussed this in one of my very first posts on this blog:

This is why I am frequently skeptical of studies of healthy isolated populations that argue that the diets and lifestyles of the isolated populations are optimal for all of us.

Given the way selection operates, it is almost guaranteed that a specific diet adopted by an isolated population (e.g., a diet heavy on cheese, fruits etc.) will lead to evolutionary changes, which will be reflected in genetic differences between the descendants of the isolated population and others.

Michael Barker said...

This paper, I believe, puts the time of change at 300 years.

Aaron Blaisdell said...

Interesting thoughts on power napping. The way you describe it seems a lot like the way young kids naturally fall asleep quickly. Yet another "skill" that was likely already with us at birth, lost through development in a "civilized" community, and needing a lot of practice and patience to regain. It reminds me of Mark Sisson's take on play.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Aaron. Yes, I think we unlearn a lot of things as we age in modern environments.

This reminds me of a series of books (9 in total, I think) that I read a while ago, about the traditional Yaqui way of life.

The books were written as memoirs; the consensus is that they are largely fictional, but based on the author's research.

One way of another, they have a number of very powerful philosophical insights into human nature. The author is the late Carlos Castaneda:

Stress Management said...

I also want to thank for suggesting a very amazing book. I just wish that I can find it in a local book store. I like this topic so much.

Unknown said...

Might be a good idea to pay attention to what you are thinking at the time you are feeling stressed. Sometimes we can have negative thoughts that produce stress without really realizing it. Just watch what you're thinking and then flip it to something positive.

Psychological Therapist