NSDR Can’t Replace Sleep, But It May Help You Sleep Better

NSDR is a deep relaxation technique. It can’t replace sleep, but it may help you fall asleep faster, wake up less often, and get the sleep you need.
Published
2023-12-15
12 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
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We bring sleep research out of the lab and into your life. Every post begins with peer-reviewed studies — not third-party sources — to make sure we only share advice that can be defended to a room full of sleep scientists.
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Updated Regularly
We regularly update our articles to explain the latest research and shifts in scientific consensus in a simple and actionable way.

What is NSDR?

  • Non-sleep deep rest (NSDR) is a term coined by Dr. Andrew Huberman. It’s inspired by yoga nidra, an ancient relaxation technique. 
  • It can temporarily boost your energy, mood, and mental performance, just as sleep can, hence why some think it can replace sleep or taking a nap. 
  • NSDR can’t replace sleep — sleep comes with many more benefits and sleep deprivation comes with a long list of negative outcomes — but it can benefit your sleep in many ways, including helping you fall asleep faster and potentially improving chronic insomnia. 
  • Get the most out of your NSDR practice with the RISE app. RISE can tell you the best time to do NSDR, whether you’re better off taking a nap instead, and guide you through other daily habits and relaxation exercises to help you get more sleep.

If you’re a fan of the Huberman Lab podcast, you’ve undoubtedly heard about NSDR, or non-sleep deep rest. 

It’s a relaxation technique inspired by yoga nidra said to help with everything from creativity to mental clarity, neuroplasticity to sleep. 

Below, we’ll dive into the science behind NSDR to uncover the benefits and whether it can replace sleep (spoiler: it can’t). Plus, we’ll share how you can use RISE to make the most of NSDR or use other science-backed tools to improve your sleep and energy.

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

Advice from a sleep doctor:

“Non-sleep deep rest, or NSDR, can’t replace sleep, but it can help you relax and unwind, either during the day, before bed, or in the middle of the night if you can’t sleep. As long as you’re not using NSDR to replace sleep, it may help boost your energy, mood, and overall mental health.”

Rise Science sleep advisor and medical reviewer, Dr. Chester Wu.

What is Non-Sleep Deep Rest?

Non-sleep deep rest (NSDR) is a term coined by Dr. Andrew Huberman, a professor of neuroscience at Stanford School of Medicine and the host of the Huberman Lab podcast. 

NSDR is inspired by yoga nidra, an ancient yogi relaxation technique designed to put you into a state of deep rest. Huberman created the NSDR term to give yoga nidra a name that doesn’t include any mystical, new age, or scientific language. 

In a podcast, Huberman said NSDR is “intentionally generic” so it appeals to more people. 

NSDR generally involves sitting or lying on your back with your eyes closed and doing breathing exercises and visualizations. 

The RISE app can tell you when to practice yoga nidra
Caption: NSDR can be practiced lying on your back. Source: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41782-022-00202-7

Huberman, who says NSDR is part of his daily routine, says, “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. 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. It also takes advantage of the fact that we can control our perception, that is, which sensations we are focused on. And by doing so, we can shift our brain state from thinking, from stress, from planning, from anticipation of any kind — positive or negative — to one of pure sensation and deep relaxation.” 

Heads-up: NSDR is sometimes used interchangeably with yoga nidra and sometimes as an umbrella term encompassing yoga nidra, naps, and self-hypnosis. 

NSDR vs. Yoga Nidra

According to Huberman, NSDR and yoga nidra are essentially the same thing. 

Yoga nidra is an ancient yogi relaxation technique and NSDR is a term coined by Huberman that’s inspired by yoga nidra. 

NSDR has less of a yoga or spiritual focus, so it doesn’t usually include intention setting or yogi language. 

We’ve covered yoga nidra here in more detail.

NSDR vs. Meditation

Huberman has compared NSDR and yoga nidra to a deep relaxation meditation.

Some forms of guided meditation involve active breathwork or intense focus, potentially on points outside of your body, whereas yoga nidra and NSDR don’t need much brain work and focus on sensations in your body to relax you.

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What Are the Benefits of NSDR? 

As the term NSDR was coined by Huberman, there’s no research on the practice per se. When discussing the benefits, most people reference studies on yoga nidra, or yogic sleep. But as the practices are very similar, they may have the same benefits. 

The benefits of yoga nidra and by possible extension of NSDR include:

For sleep, yoga nidra and therefore NSDR may be able to: 

Some of the non-sleep benefits may go on to improve your sleep, such as better mental health, pain management, stress, and anxiety. RISE users say stress and anxiety are the biggest barriers to getting a good night’s sleep, so anything you can do to destress may help your sleep.

Most of the research on yoga nidra is fairly recent and evolving, so we’re still learning about the benefits. And for NSDR specifically, as this is a term coined by Huberman for yoga nidra, there are no studies on it. 

The studies out there on yoga nidra often come with a few problems, like small sample sizes, heterogenous protocols, self-reported data, and including other practices alongside yoga nidra. 

NSDR practices can also differ from yoga nidra practices, so, if they don’t include intention setting or more yogi parts of the practice, for example, the benefits may differ. 

Plus, if you’re taking a power nap as part of a NSDR protocol, that’ll come with the many benefits of sleep that non-napping NSDR can’t deliver. 

How to Do NSDR?

Here’s how to do NSDR: 

  1. Sit or lay down and close your eyes. 
  2. Do a body scan, focusing on different parts of your body in turn. 
  3. Imagine your body relaxing and sinking down into the surface you’re in contact with. 
  4. Inhale through your nose and take slightly longer exhales through your mouth.  

Each NSDR video or audio guide is slightly different. 

You can find 10-to-60-minute NSDR sessions for free online or you can follow an NSDR practice by Huberman here. Apps like Reveri and Virtusan, which Huberman works with, also offer guided NSDR practices. 

Heads-up: NSDR isn’t designed to put you to sleep, but if you end up snoozing that’s OK (although maybe set an alarm if you think you’ll fall asleep).

When to Do NSDR?

You can do NSDR at any time to relax and reduce stress

Here are the best times to do NSDR: 

  • If you can’t sleep at night: If you wake up in the night and can’t fall back asleep after 20 minutes of trying, get up, go to a different room, and do an NSDR session as part of a sleep reset. It’ll give you something calming to do and provide a distraction so you don’t try to force sleep (that’ll only make it harder to drift off). If you start to feel sleepy, climb back into bed. If not, at least you’re relaxing and, hopefully, moving closer to being able to fall asleep soon.
  • Before bed: Try doing NSDR as part of your bedtime routine. It can help you unwind before bed, which may help you fall asleep faster. It also gives you something to focus on if you find yourself ruminating in bed. If you find it makes you feel too alert afterward, switch to a meditation practice designed for sleep or try RISE’s guided relaxation and breathing exercises.
  • During the day: One great time to do NSDR is during your afternoon dip in energy when your productivity is lower and you’re ready for a break. Check RISE for when this is each day. 

However, if you’re sleep deprived, you’re better off taking a nap instead of doing NSDR. Check RISE to see how much sleep debt you have (the sleep you owe your body). We recommend aiming for five hours or less. If you’ve got a lot of sleep debt, taking a nap will have a greater impact on your energy and performance. NSDR can’t replace sleep or bring all of the benefits of sleep. We’ll dive into this more soon. 

Nap no later than your afternoon dip in energy to avoid making it harder to sleep at night. If it’s too late in the day to take a nap, or you need to avoid sleep inertia (grogginess), NSDR may be more appropriate than a nap to help you feel (temporarily) more alert. 

RISE app screenshot showing your energy peak and dip times
The RISE app can predict your energy peaks and dips each day.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can see their upcoming energy peaks and dips on the Energy screen here.  

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How Does NSDR Work? 

NSDR works by promoting your parasympathetic nervous system. This is your body’s rest and digest mode, opposite to fight or flight mode. 

Research shows yoga nidra (and therefore potentially NSDR) can cause a shift towards parasympathetic dominance, meaning your parasympathetic nervous system is more active. This can lead to a lower heart rate, slower breathing rate, and feelings of calmness.

Your brain wave frequency may also change, producing more theta and delta brain waves, which is a characteristic of deep sleep.

Research shows yoga nidra can increase dopamine release in the brain by 65%. This can lead to a decreased desire for action, which could help you relax and drift off. In a podcast, Huberman says this could also lead to more divergent thinking or creativity.

Yoga nidra can also lower cortisol, the stress hormone, which can make it easier to get the sleep you need.

You can learn more about how yoga nidra works here.

Can You Replace Sleep With NSDR? 

No, you can’t replace sleep with NSDR. 

During NSDR, you’re in a deep state of relaxation and you may feel more refreshed afterward, but you’re not getting all the benefits you would from sleep. 

For example, when you miss out on sleep, your energy, mood, cognitive function, memory retention, reaction times, skin, digestion, and athletic performance — just to name a few things — take a hit. In the long run, you’re upping your odds of serious health conditions like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. 

NSDR may be able to temporarily improve some factors — like your energy, mood, and cognitive function. This is one reason some say it can replace sleep or a nap. But really, as NSDR isn’t sleep, it can’t bring you the many benefits of real sleep.

Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, co-director of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Sciences at Stanford University and one of our sleep advisors says that most aspects of sleep can’t be replaced by yoga nidra or NSDR.

He adds, “one cannot mistake an energy boost for relief of sleep pressure.” 

Heads-up: Sleep pressure is the urge to sleep. Nighttime sleep and naps relieve sleep pressure, but NSDR doesn’t as it’s not real sleep.

This is assuming the NSDR you do is close to yoga nidra. If you’re napping as part of an NSDR practice, you’ll get some benefits of sleep (although you’ll still need to get enough sleep overall to feel your best). 

How is NSDR Different from Sleep? 

NSDR is different from sleep as you’re not really drifting off during NSDR (or yoga nidra). 

Research from 2022 looked at brain activity during yoga nidra. It found participants didn’t fall asleep — so yoga nidra can’t be classed as sleep — but some areas of their brain showed local sleep changes while practicing. 

In simple terms, some areas of the brain slowed down and appeared as though they were sleeping while the rest of the brain was awake.  

It’s unclear what local sleep can do for you. For example, the 2022 research above says it’s unknown whether local sleep can reduce sleep debt. So yoga nidra (and therefore probably NSDR) can’t bring all of the benefits of sleep, nor does it erase all of the negative impacts of sleep deprivation. Low sleep debt is what makes the biggest and most lasting difference to your energy levels — not to mention your overall health and well-being.

RISE works out how much sleep debt you have each day, so you can check whether you’re better off getting more sleep (by taking an afternoon nap, heading to bed early, or sleeping in slightly later) instead of doing NSDR if you’ve got a lot of sleep debt to pay back.

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app calculates how much sleep debt you have.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can view their sleep debt here.


Does NSDR Reduce How Much Sleep You Need? 

Your sleep need — the genetically determined amount of sleep you need — doesn’t change when you do NSDR. 

You can use RISE to find out how much sleep you need exactly as this number is highly individual. We looked at the sleep needs of 1.95 million RISE users aged 24 and up and found it ranged from five hours to 11 hours 30 minutes. 

The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need
How much sleep RISE users need.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can view their sleep need here

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NSDR vs Nap 

NSDR isn’t the same as the real sleep you get from a nap. So it won’t bring the many benefits that a nap can. 

NSDR may temporarily boost your energy, mood, and performance, however. So, if you’re not sleep deprived, you can practice NSDR for an added boost. 

If you have a lot of sleep debt, and it’s not too close to bedtime, you’re better off taking a nap to catch up on sleep and get more lasting improvements to how you feel and function.  

Can NSDR Help You Sleep? 

NSDR may help you sleep by helping you get into a relaxed state, reducing overall stress levels, and lowering your cortisol levels.  

A 2023 study found two weeks of yoga nidra helped improve participants’ sleep efficiency by almost 4%, reduce wake time at night by 20 minutes, and increase deep sleep brain wave activity. 

And a 2021 study found yoga nidra led to some of the same benefits as cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), the gold standard treatment for insomnia. Participants, who had chronic insomnia, got more sleep, spent more time in deep sleep, and had lower cortisol levels. 

NSDR can help lower stress levels at any time. And if you do it before bed or during the night, you’ll be slowing down your brain and body for sleep. Plus, while doing NSDR, you’re not doing any behaviors that could make it harder to sleep, like checking work email or scrolling TikTok in bed. 

Master Your Sleep With RISE 

NSDR is a form of yoga nidra meditation coined by neuroscientist Dr. Huberman. It may come with many health and restorative benefits. 

For your sleep, it may help you fall asleep faster, wake up less often, and get more sleep overall. But NSDR can’t replace sleep. 

If you’re curious about NSDR, RISE can help you make the most of your practice by showing you the best time to do it and working out your sleep debt, so you know when you’re better off taking a nap or getting more sleep at night. 

RISE also has science-backed tools to improve your sleep, like 20+ personalized sleep hygiene reminders and guided relaxation techniques and breathing exercises. 

RISE users say the app makes a real difference: “I am sleeping better than at any point in my life. I will use this app for the rest of my life.” Read the review

It can help fast too — 80% of RISE users get better sleep within five days.

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