How to nap like a pro – and improve your brain health

As research suggests that napping could be good for your brain, we’ve got some top snooze tips for you to try today.

There’s good news for you if you enjoy an afternoon nap. New research has revealed that a short daytime doze may help protect against brain shrinkage as it ages. 

Senior author Dr Victoria Garfield, a Senior Fellow at the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health & Ageing at UCL, said: “Our findings suggest that, for some people, short daytime naps may be a part of the puzzle that could help preserve the health of the brain as we get older.” She added: “I hope studies such as this one showing the health benefits of short naps can help to reduce any stigma that still exists around daytime napping.” 

Woman taking a nap with an eye mask onCredit: Shutterstock/fizkes
Napping could protect your brain against shrinkage

What the research found

Researchers found that people who were genetically prone to daytime napping had a total brain volume that was 15.8 cubic cm larger on average (just under a cubic inch). Because the brain shrinks as it gets older, the researchers estimated that this difference was equivalent to 2.6 to 6.5 years of ageing.

The study, published in the Sleep Health Journal, was conducted by a team from University College London (UCL) and the University of the Republic in Uruguay. They were using UK Biobank data from more than 30,000 participants aged 40 to 69 (when the data was collected).

They used a technique called Mendelian randomisation, which compares groups of people by looking at differences in their genes – in this case, gene differences known to be linked to napping.

The advantage of this is that it can avoid the results being influenced by lifestyle or health differences that could affect whether people nap (and could skew the findings). The effects of napping have not previously been studied in this way.  

This new study adds to earlier research that has shown a short sleep during the day can improve cognitive performance (a decline in which could lead to Alzheimer’s or dementia), and boost learning.  

But is it as simple as just closing your eyes for a few minutes? We spoke with the experts for their tips to help you get the best nap ever and improve your brain health today.  


What’s the best way to nap?

You should nap in bed, says psychologist and neuroscientist Dr Lindsay Browning: “If you always fall asleep on the sofa (intentionally or unintentionally), it can lead to you finding it harder to fall asleep in your bed at night. This is because your brain starts to associate your sofa as where you sleep, so it’s best to nap in your usual bed.”  

Creating the right environment will also help you have a great rest, says Browning: “Close the curtains and put on an eye mask if there’s still too much light in the room, as it can hinder sleep. Don’t forget to set an alarm so you don’t sleep for too long, and switch your phone to ‘do not disturb’ mode for an uninterrupted nap.” 

How long should you nap for?

The new study didn’t look at how long you should nap for, but previous studies have identified a nap of up to an hour could improve cognitive function in older adults.  

However, you can have too much of a good thing. If you sleep too much in the day, you’ll disrupt your sleep/wake cycle and find it difficult to get sufficient rest at night. If you do struggle to sleep at your normal bedtime, think about reducing your nap time during the day and snoozing earlier.  

Browning advises a shorter nap of around 15-30 minutes is enough, and will ensure you don’t fall into the deeper stages of sleep. “A short nap will refresh you and give you a boost for the rest of the day, but it won’t be too long to disrupt your sleep later in the evening.”   

Neurologist and sleep specialist Dr Chris Winter agrees: “I think a nap of around 30 minutes is perfect. It’s long enough to invigorate you, but not so long that you’ll enter deep sleep. That often leads to post-nap funk or what’s often referred to as sleep inertia the state between sleep and wake.” 

Senior man looking at alarm clock deciding how long to nap forCredit: Shutterstock/Pressmaster
Set an alarm so you don’t nap for too long

What’s the best time to have a nap?

If you nap at the wrong time of day, you’ll struggle to sleep in the evening as you’ll have not built up enough sleep drive (your need for sleep). This can mean you feel tired after lunch – the “post-lunch dip”.    

One small study asked participants to take a daily nap between 1.30pm and 3pm with the average sleep time being reported as 57 minutes. Researchers concluded that though there were some negative effects on nighttime sleep, such as waking up earlier, there was no evidence that it significantly disrupted their normal sleep routine.  

Browning says: “A nap just after lunch is perfect, as that’s when we have a natural dip in our circadian rhythm (we’re naturally designed to have a siesta). If you take a nap later than 2pm, you may find that you struggle to fall asleep at night.” 

Napping in the early evening – in front of the television, for example is not ideal and will disrupt your night’s rest, says Browning. “You may not feel tired enough to fall asleep when you go to bed because you have slept so recently.” 

Winter adds that napping at the same time every day is best, and agrees you shouldn’t do it too late in the afternoon. “We need sufficient time between sleep periods to develop adequate sleep drive for the evening. If you nap later, it will mean that you won’t be tired when you go to bed for the night.” 

So it’s best to eat your lunch in the early part of the afternoon, then settle down to have your nap before it gets too late in the day.  

Rebecca Frew

Written by Rebecca Frew she/her


Becky Frew has written various articles for newspapers and magazines focusing on fitness, is a qualified run leader, and a certified sleep talker trainer who loves to help advise people how they can nod off easier. When she is not writing or reading about fitness, she is at hot pod yoga, bounce class, training for an ultra-marathon or booking anything with a medal and free food at the end.

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