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Stimulus Package

The quick fix for more than 150 million Americans is caffeine, but coffee and Diet Coke offer little more than temporary relief. The pick-me-up from a shot of espresso kicks in about 20 to 30 minutes after you consume it, but your body’s natural suppressants eventually build up and overtake caffeine’s effects. A far more reliable stay-alert system, scientists say, is taking short daily naps. Our bodies are hardwired for two windows of intense sleepiness every day: One falls between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., during our natural nocturnal schedule, but the other strikes midday, from about 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. During this afternoon slump, the clock cells in your hypothalamus signal your body temperature to rise and then dip, mimicking the changes before bedtime that trigger sleep cravings.

For a light recharge, hit the pillow—or crawl under your desk—for 20 minutes, which is long enough to increase concentration, enhance mood, and fine-tune motor skills. If you’re really fatigued, set aside a full 90 minutes to nap; that’s about how long it takes your body to complete a full sleep cycle through five different stages, from light to deep to rapid eye movement (REM). Anything between 20 and 90 minutes and you risk surfacing from deep sleep feeling groggy and disoriented.

Napping may also help consolidate and improve motor memory. A Harvard Medical School study last year found that the best way to cement a new complex motor skill, such as crack climbing or whitewater paddling, may be a morning lesson followed by an afternoon nap.

Clinical psychologist Michael Breus, Ph.D., diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine, recommends a novel way to combine the benefits of caffeine and naps. "I call it a nap-a-latte: Drink a cup of coffee, then take a 15-minute doze. The nap removes sleep pressure, and the caffeine immediately picks you up when you wake."

Benincasa plans to use a similar technique from here on out. "If I can lie down for 20-minute increments, I can function for another two hours before I lose it again," she says. "The real race starts 75 percent through—just when everyone else is destroyed, you start mowing them down because you’ve prepared with enough sleep."

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