NSDR Is An Overhyped Health Hack — That Doesn’t Mean You Shouldn’t Try It
The internet is buzzing with a new energizing hack: non-sleep deep rest. NSDR, as it’s known, is a technique that allegedly serves as a napping alternative that leaves you feeling rested and restored with a host of other health benefits in as little as 10 to 20 minutes.
NSDR, a term coined by Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, Ph.D., is founded on deep-rooted scientific notions about how breathing and relaxation exercises restore concentration, increase energy, and decrease stress. But researchers external to the movement question whether this isn’t just a repackaging of century-old meditation traditions, and whether branding them as forms of biohacking only tells half the story.
What Is Non-Sleep Deep Rest?
Non-sleep deep rest describes relaxation techniques meant to help you get into a dreamy, semi-focused state — the daze that usually takes place when you’re about to drift off — for the purpose of feeling recharged and re-focused. Huberman calls these faux nap relaxation techniques “NSDR protocols.”
“Non-sleep deep rest is a powerful tool that can allow you to control the relaxation state of your nervous system and your overall state of mind,” says Huberman in a 10-minute guide on YouTube. “It takes advantage of the fact that specific forms of breathing place us into a state of deep relaxation by slowing our heart rate down.”
Sleep.com suggests we think about NSDR as “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 such as hypnosis or yoga Nidra, a yoga discipline in which an instructor guides you through a calming routine focused on relaxation, reflection, and breathing work while you’re lying down.
For example, in the above mentioned video, Huberman urges the listener to imagine standing over themself, looking down at their body, and holding a spotlight at different parts of their figure to perform a body-scan, while taking deep breaths at specific intervals.
As Huberman notes, this is one of many accessible, free, and easy techniques to master relaxation. To try out NSDR for yourself, check out one of the many guided episodes available online.
— Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Getty Images
Isn’t NSDR Just Meditation?
In this interview with Tim Ferriss, Huberman explains that NSDR is a term he coined because he thought it could help a new group of people — those who’d usually be turned off by more spiritual concepts like meditation, or even yoga — to learn about relaxation techniques. “NSDR is my attempt to create a more friendly language,” he says.
Yet Huberman also says that non-sleep deep rest is not meditation and that a clear distinction needs to be made. “NSDR has this amazing ability to reset your energy levels and focus, whereas many people find meditation hard because it requires focus,” Huberman said in an interview with Lex Fridman for Health Tips. “NSDR is a state which is very calm and relaxing, you don’t have to work too hard, you’re just listening to a script. Whereas most forms of meditation involve cranking up the activity in your prefrontal cortex.”
To some other scientists, though, this seems a potàto-potatò comparison.
Sara Mednick, Ph.D., a 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 that NSDR is a form of guided meditation. “To me, this is just a repackaging and appropriation of every meditation tradition that’s existed 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 find it absurd that the rebranding of it has suddenly become as though it’s something novel — because it’s truly not.”
So, Does NSDR Work?
According to Huberman, NSDR relieves stress, improves memory, cognition, and neuroplasticity, and boosts sleep quality. But NSDR hasn’t been formally studied yet, so there is no scientific basis for these claims.
However, a growing body of peer-reviewed research does suggest a large swath of beneficial outcomes from relaxation practices such as yoga Nidra, which NSDR is essentially a rebranding of. For example:
Practicing yoga Nidra over a period of six months is linked to significant reductions in signs of inflammation, according to a study from 2006.Stress and anxiety were reduced following six months of yoga Nidra practice, and practicing 30 minutes of Nidra yoga for 15 days continually can be effective for helping control hypertension.Yoga Nidra can serve as a form of pain relief in people with age-related lower-back pain, according to a 2017 study.Yoga Nidra can improve the performance and reaction time of professional athletes.It’s also been suggested to help regulate insomnia, menstrual irregularities, and lower blood glucose levels.Research has even shown that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, yoga Nidra helped uplift the mood of elderly women.
Because studies have repeatedly shown that the practices NSDR pulls from are restorative, it follows that NSDR would have similar effects, Mednick says. “You get into focusing on your breathing and sending your focus into the toes and the feet and the legs and the hands and away from your head and away from your over-anxious brain.”
“We’re not meant to just work, work, work, work all day long. We deteriorate across the day,” says Mednick. “So taking breaks like this definitely works.”
— Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Getty Images
Is NSDR Better Than a Nap?
Adding NSDR to your daily routine to crank up your energy levels when you feel them dropping, is a good low-stakes way to disrupt your day. Yes, it’s comparable to a power nap.
“To some extent, you could see the same benefit from meditation as you can from light sleep,” says Mednick. “If you are somebody who’s not a napper, I really recommend any type of meditation to use during the day when you need to.”
That said, no 10- or 20-minute relaxation routine can get anywhere close to the recovery that happens during sleep or masterful meditation of an hour or more, Mednick says. During deep sleep, the body undergoes processes such as memory consolidation that “never, ever” occur when you’re awake, Mednick says.