THE BLOG
11/03/2015 05:50 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2016

Sleep On It: Your Brain Never Takes a Night Off

The University of Notre Dame

For something as natural to humans as breathing, sleep suffers from a bit of a reputational crisis. Somewhere along the line, sleep became the adult equivalent of eating your vegetables, something you have to do to get to something else you'd rather be doing, like eating dessert.

What's worse, Americans tend to wear their lack of sleep like a badge of honor, a testament to their dedication and, presumably, their productivity. We've all had a co-worker humble-brag about only getting several hours of sleep. What they don't realize is, they're robbing their brain of a critically active time period, during which it functions to help us improve overall cognition. This makes us better at work, better at school, and better at home.

Research estimates that upwards of tens of thousands of messages vie for our attention each day. It's a veritable flood of content and information, all of which needs to be sorted into what's useful and what's not, and from which insights and memories must be made. To aid in this, many regions of the brain -- especially those involved in learning, memory, and emotion -- are actually more active during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep than when you're awake.

These regions work together, helping you process and sort information you've taken in during the course of the day. Obviously, this is incredibly important for your productivity, emotional well-being, and ability to learn, and it comes as something of an "a-ha" moment when I speak to corporations of busy executives. When they realize their brains are getting work done while they sleeping, they stop seeing it as a detraction and instead view sleep for what it truly is: one of the most effective tools for improving performance in every area of life.

Moreover, the benefits of sleep need not be saved for nighttime. My research indicates all of us could benefit from a nap each day, not only for the general rejuvenating effects, but also to allow the brain to "clear the cache" if you will, and be ready to encode information again upon awakening. The ideal time for a nap is in the afternoon, after lunch, a fact to which most of us can anecdotally attest.

Often, the true "power nap" of 20 minutes or less is ideal. This is beneficial for cognition but also is generally not long enough to fall into a deeper stage of sleep from which you can't be easily awakened. Or, nappers should aim for a session of about 90 minutes, which would allow the brain to complete an entire sleep cycle. Between 20 and 90 minutes, you run the risk of waking up in the middle of what's called slow-wave sleep, and will awaken groggy and unrefreshed.

Naps are an especially effective tool for chipping away at what is known as sleep debt -- the gap between how much sleep you get, and how much you actually need. (Which, as you've probably heard, is usually between seven and nine hours for the vast majority of adults, but not for everyone. There are some of us who need less and some who need more.) Every one of us will eventually pay back sleep debt; the body is wired in such a way to ensure this. Of course, try telling that to anyone juggling the demands of what's become a fairly typical American life. Work, family, volunteering, social commitments -- they all make it difficult for many of us to truly get the amount of sleep we need.

The good news? Just 20 more minutes of shuteye on a regular basis can help you begin to reap the brain-building benefits of sleep. I recommend 20 minutes because I've found it's achievable for most people. There are several ways to build it into your schedule, including that daytime nap, or you can try tacking it onto the beginning or end of your nighttime sleep cycle regularly. My research shows that these extra 20 minutes, over time, have a compounding effect and begin to chip away at sleep debt and improve cognition and emotional health.

Sleep is a biological need, but it's about so much more than just energy and wakefulness. When you start to realize the benefits of sleep, and the power behind it, it becomes apparent that sleep is one of the most important tools at your disposal for a more productive, robust existence in all aspects of life.