NSDR is an overhyped health hack. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try

The internet is buzzing with a new energizing hack: no-sleep deep rest. NSDR, as it is known, is a technique that purportedly serves as a nap alternative that leaves you feeling rested and restored with a host of other health benefits in just 10 to 20 minutes.

NSDR, a term coined by Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, Ph.D., is based on deeply held scientific beliefs about how breathing and relaxation exercises restore concentration, increase energy, and reduce stress. But researchers outside the movement wonder if this isn’t just a repackaging of ancient meditation traditions, and if labeling them as forms of biohacking only tells half the story.

What is NSDR?

Deep Rest Without Sleep describes relaxation techniques designed to help you get into a dreamy, semi-focused state—the daze that usually occurs when you’re about to drift off—with the aim of feeling recharged and refocused. Huberman calls these techniques for napping “NSDR protocols.”

“Non-sleep deep rest is a powerful tool that helps you manage your nervous system’s state of relaxation and your overall mood,” says Huberman in a 10-minute guide on YouTube. “It takes advantage of the fact that specific forms of breathing put us in a state of deep relaxation by slowing down our heart rate.”

Sleep.com suggests we consider NSDR “Silicon Valley’s answer to the ‘siesta’,” and Google CEO Sundar Pichai swears by it, according to an interview with the Wall Street Journal. But it’s more of an umbrella to describe techniques like hypnosis or Yoga Nidra, a yoga discipline in which an instructor leads you through a calming routine that focuses on relaxation, reflection, and breathwork while you lie down.

For example, in the aforementioned video, Huberman urges the listener to imagine himself standing over himself, looking at his body, and holding a spotlight on different parts of his figure to perform a body scan, while at certain intervals take a deep breath.

As Huberman points out, this is one of many accessible, free, and easy techniques for mastering relaxation. To try NSDR for yourself, watch one of the many guided episodes available online.

Isn’t NSDR just meditation?

In this interview with Tim Ferriss, Huberman clearly explains that NSDR is a term he coined because he thought it could help a new group of people—those who are normally put off by more spiritual concepts like meditation or even yoga—to learn about relaxation techniques. “NSDR is my attempt to create a friendlier language,” he says.

Yet Huberman also says that deep rest without sleep is not meditation and a clear distinction must be made. “NSDR has the amazing ability to reset your energy level and focus, which many people find meditation difficult because of it necessary focus,” said Huberman in an interview with Lex Fridman for Health tips. “NSDR is a state that is very calm and relaxing, you don’t have to work too hard, you just listen to a script. While most forms of meditation increase the activity in your prefrontal cortex.”

However, to some other scientists, this seems like a comparison between potatoes and potatoes.

Sara Mednick, Ph.D., cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine, and author of The Power of the Downstate: Recharge Your Life Using Your Body’s Own Energy Systems, says NSDR is a form of guided meditation. “To me, this is just a repackaging and appropriation of every meditation tradition that’s been around for hundreds of years,” says Mednick. “It’s literally 10 minutes of breathing into your body and becoming aware of your body, which has a long history in meditation. I just think it’s absurd that the rebranding of it has suddenly become like it’s something new – because it really isn’t.”

So, does NSDR work?

According to Huberman, NSDR relieves stress, improves memory, cognition and neuroplasticity, and improves sleep quality. But NSDR has not yet been formally studied, so there is no scientific basis for these claims.

However, a growing body of peer-reviewed research suggests a host of beneficial outcomes from relaxation practices such as yoga Nidra, of which NSDR is essentially a rebrand. For instance:

Since studies have repeatedly shown that NSDR’s practices are restorative, it follows that NSDR would have similar effects, says Mednick. “You’re going to focus on your breathing and direct your attention to the toes and the feet and the legs and the hands and away from your head and away from your overworked brain.”

“We are not supposed to work, work, work, work all day. We deteriorate during the day,” says Mednick. “So taking breaks like this definitely works.”

Is NSDR better than a nap?

Adding NSDR to your daily routine to boost your energy levels when you feel them dropping is a good way to put your day on the back burner. Yes, it is similar to a power nap.

“To some extent, you might see the same benefit from meditation as you would from light sleep,” says Mednick. “If you’re someone who doesn’t nap, I really recommend any kind of meditation to use during the day when you need to.”

That said, no 10 or 20 minute relaxation routine can come close to the recovery that occurs during sleep or masterful meditation of an hour or more, says Mednick. During deep sleep, the body undergoes processes like memory consolidation that “never, ever” happen when you’re awake, says Mednick.

NSDR is an overhyped health hack. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try

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