Are they good for you?
It’s the weekend and you’re at home due to the rain outside. Once you get all of your to-dos done, you sit down on the couch. As you sit there, you feel tired. You feel like you could fall asleep. You want to take a nap, but should you? If you do, how will it impact your ability to sleep later? Is there any benefit to napping?
How much sleep do you get each night? Is it less than the recommended 7-9 hours? Do you feel alert in the morning, but find it hard to concentrate by the afternoon? After lunch, are you cranky and irritable? Do you need coffee or an energy drink to make it to dinner? If you answered “yes” to any of these, you might be sleep-deprived. This is becoming more common throughout the country, with 1 in 3 Americans experiencing the disorder. So, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that a third of adults nap on any given day, according to a 2009 report from the Pew Research Center. It’s normal to have a natural increase in drowsiness in the afternoon, about 8 hours after waking. However, sleep loss over time adds up. So, if you have a sleep deficit, you’re more likely to have a more challenging time functioning during the day. Inadequate amounts of sleep lead to impaired reaction time, judgment, vision, information processing, short-term memory, performance, motivation, vigilance, and patience. Tired people are also more likely to be moody and aggressive. Besides, they’ll feel more stressed and become burned out quicker.
There’s a way that your body tries to fight the lack of sleep so it can continue to function…napping. Unfortunately, there are many stigmas associated with it. It’s considered to be acceptable for children, the sick, and the elderly. Otherwise, it’s thought to indicate laziness, a lack of ambition, and low standards. These sentiments are false. Over 85% of mammalian species are polyphasic sleepers, which means they sleep for short periods throughout the day. Humans are one of the few that divides days into two distinct periods, one for sleep and one for wakefulness. There isn’t enough historical data to know if this is the natural sleep pattern of humans or something that has evolved over time due to accepted practices and norms of society.
To appreciate the importance of sleep, it’s vital to understand the stages and their significance. There are three main stages, including light sleep, deep sleep (the stage in which the body repairs itself), and rapid-eye-movement sleep, or REM sleep (during which the brain is repaired). During each stage, your body experiences different brain wavelengths and releases specific hormones into the bloodstream. When the brain is in the deeper stages, it’s much less responsive to outside stimuli. During this period, your brain also releases compounds that make you more tired, which helps you to stay asleep for the whole night. All the stages put together are known as a sleep cycle and each one is somewhere around 90-110 minutes long. Your body goes through multiple sleep cycles in a single night. Most experts agree that the body needs 7-9 hours of sleep per night, depending on personal and genetic factors.
Genetics could explain why some people are more likely to be nappers and some aren’t. According to a study by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a minimum of 80 genes appear to be involved in sleep regulation, which means that sleep duration needs vary considerably because they’re based on a wide variety of genetic differences. Research has discovered that natural nappers, about 40% of the population, don’t go into a deep sleep during their daytime snoozes. Instead, they stay in the lighter stages of sleep, which allows them to wake up feeling refreshed and recharged, almost as if they got a full night’s sleep. In fact, if these individuals don’t take a nap, their productivity plummets. If natural nappers don’t/can’t take a break to get some shuteye, they usually reach for energy drinks, caffeine, or other stimulants to perk up. Yet, these aren’t as effective as a short nap would be. It seems those that are more likely to be habitual nappers are those who get on average six hours or less sleep each night. The good news is that taking a nap doesn’t affect their ability to sleep at night. For people who aren’t natural, habitual nappers, they tend to fall into a very deep sleep during naps, which leaves them feeling groggy when they wake up. These individuals don’t necessarily have trouble falling or staying asleep, but have noticeably slower motor functionality upon waking. One reason has to do with how your homeostatic sleep pressure (HSP), which regulates sleep intensity, aligns with your circadian rhythm, which regulates the timing of sleep. HSP rises the more you’re awake, making you sleepier until you fall asleep and HSP decreases. For regular nappers, they get these two factors into a balanced rhythm. Nonhabitual nappers release their HSP during their nap, so the need to go to sleep at their usual time is diminished. This can through off their circadian rhythm, which influences many other body functions, such as digestion and body temperature.
After a certain age, naps are not biologically necessary, so many people feel that you shouldn’t need to take one. However, there are many benefits to be gained by napping at any age. Newborns sleep most of the day because their development takes a lot of energy. Since babies and toddlers also experience large amounts of growth, napping is good for their health as well. When children become teenagers, they face many challenges, like hormonal changes, studying, and early school start times, making them feel tired. Napping can help them deal with these issues. A study done in 2019 found that the best nap duration for teenagers is somewhere between 30–60 minutes. For elderly individuals, napping is essential too. After about 60, you have less deep sleep and more rapid sleep cycles. This means that you’ll awaken more often and sleep an average of two hours less each night. Despite these changes, it doesn’t mean that your body needs less sleep than it did before. Regardless of age, you still need 7-9 hours of sleep each night to function at your best. When elderly individuals nap, they’re helping their bodies recover this deficit. This catching up is vital to help maintain, and in some cases, improve mental function. A study conducted in 2011 by researchers at the Weill Cornell Medical College supports this idea. The study was small but well-designed. It involved 22 healthy women and men ages 50 to 83 who agreed to be evaluated in a sleep laboratory. In the first couple of weeks, participants kept sleep logs at home and wore monitors to track their nighttime movements. Next, they went to a sleep laboratory for three nights and two days to be given a thorough sleep evaluation and a battery of cognitive tests. Afterward, participants started a month-long daily napping routine at home. Half the group took short (45-minute) naps, and the other half took longer (two-hour) naps. In the second and fourth weeks, all returned to the lab for repeat assessments. The results showed that napping increased the time spent in slow-wave and rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep. Participants had marked improvement in three of the four tests in the study’s cognitive-assessment sequence. By the end of the study, total sleep time had increased by an average of 65 minutes for those in the two-hour nap group, and by an average of 20 minutes for those in the 45-minute nap group. Neither group had any disrupted nighttime sleep or daytime sleepiness. Participants did find it harder to stick to the two-hour nap schedule. Since only people in good physical and mental health were included in the study, it’s uncertain whether either napping regimen would help older adults with sleep disorders or medical conditions. In a different study done in China, researchers looked at data from 2,974 people ages 65 and older. Almost 60% of participants stated that they napped after lunch for about an hour. The individuals who slept for 30 to 90 minutes had better word recall than people who didn’t nap or who napped for longer than 90 minutes. They were also better at figure drawing, which is another sign of good cognition.
Naps are beneficial for both children and the elderly, but what about the rest of us? There are many advantages that each of us can gain if we nap. One of the significant impacts is improvements in alertness. NASA led a study for sleepy military pilots and astronauts that concluded that a 40-minute nap increased performance by 34% and alertness 100%. When it comes to alertness, the effects happen immediately and can last for a few hours. Some other positive health effects of napping include improving cognitive performance, enhancing short-term memory, improving mood, reducing sleepiness/fatigue, boosting performance., and promoting relaxation. All of these characteristics mean you’ll be less impulsive, have more willpower, and better able to deal with frustration. Frustration tolerance is one aspect of emotion regulation. The thought is that sleeping provides us with more distance from an emotional event and allows our brains time to process it. Since researchers are only just beginning to understand how naps might affect emotion regulation, further information is needed. Naps also make it easier to recall facts learned earlier in the day because when you sleep, your brain processes all of the info you’ve learned. Even if you’re well-rested, a nap can improve reaction time, logical reasoning, and symbol recognition. Research similarly shows that people perform just as well on the test after a 60- to 90-minute nap as they did after a full night sleep. Research demonstrates that people who nap performed better on a verbal word-recall task an hour after waking than people who took caffeine or a placebo. While caffeine enhances alertness and attention, it doesn’t help with memory consolidation. In 2006, researchers at the Sleep Medicine and Research Center affiliated with St. John’s Mercy Medical Center and St. Luke’s Hospital found that for some people a combination of naps and caffeine had the most beneficial effect.
If you’re feeling sleepy and out of sorts during the day, it’s critical to take a closer look at the reason why. Many different factors can make you feel tired with being sleep deprived is a leading one. Several things can contribute to this, such as not sleeping well, staying up too late, doing shift work, or driving long distances. Shift work is when you don’t work a “9-5” job, so you work odd hours that can impact your ability to sleep. This can cause fatigue and performance impairments. If you work at night and got enough sleep during the day, it can still be challenging to stay awake due to your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. When it comes to driving long distances, it’s a good idea to get a full night’s rest before you go. Some research shows that if you get 6 hours or less of sleep, your risk of a car accident triples. Even if you get enough sleep, it’s still possible to become drowsy while driving. If you experience this, experts recommend that you pull over to a safe area immediately, drink a caffeinated beverage, and take a 20-minute nap. Since it takes about 20-30 minutes for the caffeine to kick in, it should start working as you wake up. If you can’t pinpoint a reason as to why you’re tired during the day or it’s occurring with more regularity, you should talk to your doctor. Sometimes, poor sleep is linked to other health conditions, like stress, insomnia, or sleep apnea. If you have a condition that is causing the sleep disruption, it’s vital to get that treated. There’s also some concern about the relationship between excessive sleepiness and increased inflammation within the body. When C-reactive protein levels are high in the body, people tend to want to sleep. Since these levels are elevated when we’re sick, it makes sense that we tend to sleep more. Some research has linked many health problems to increased inflammation, including an increased risk for hypertension, diabetes, depression, and cognitive decline. Yet, other research suggests the opposite happens when people nap. Clearly, further study is needed to confirm either position.
As we’ve seen, napping isn’t for everyone. For some, they simply can’t sleep during the day or have trouble sleeping in places other than their beds, making napping anywhere else unlikely. The two main problems people have with napping are sleep inertia and nighttime sleep problems. Sleep inertia is the feeling of grogginess and disorientation that can come with awakening from a deep sleep. It can last anywhere from a few minutes to a half-hour. Individuals most likely to experience are those who’ve stayed asleep for too long and are trying to wake up in the middle of deep sleep. This is especially common for individuals who aren’t used to napping. Napping can also have a negative effect on your ability to sleep at nighttime. This is especially true if you take a long nap or your nap is too late in the day. If a nap is longer than 90 minutes, some experts call it a ‘second sleep.’ An indication that you’ve gotten too much sleep during the day is if it takes you longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep after getting in bed or having insomnia. Unfortunately, if you’re not sleeping well at night, you’re more likely to nap, which will only perpetuate the cycle of sleep disruption.
There are three main distinctions when it comes to naps. Preparatory naps are when you take a nap before you actually get sleepy. This technique can be helpful when you know that you’ll be up later than your normal bedtime or as a way to ward off getting tired earlier. Emergency naps are the naps you take when you’re suddenly so tired that you can’t continue with the activity you were doing. This type is most frequently used to combat drowsy driving or fatigue while using heavy and dangerous machinery. Habitual naps are those that are planned for the same time each day. These are the best naps since your body will eventually get into a sleep-wake cycle that doesn’t negatively impact your nighttime sleep. There are things you can do to teach yourself to nap.
How Long: The first thing to know before you ever close your eyes is how long you plan on sleeping for. The National Sleep Foundation’s recommendation is 20 minutes. Most experts state that the ideal nap length is between 20–30 minutes. This is enough time for your body to relax, but not long enough for it to enter the deep stages of the sleep cycle. Once you get beyond 30 minutes, you’re more likely to go through sleep inertia. The best length varies from person to person. This is why some experts say that if you have the time to sleep one full sleep cycle, about 90 minutes, you should. To do this, you need first to figure out how long your sleep cycle is so you’re not waking up in the middle of one, which will leave you feeling out of sorts. One way to accomplish this is to try different nap lengths to find the one that makes you feel the most refreshed. The trick is to start at 15 minutes and go from there. To make sure that you don’t sleep too long, it’s a good idea to set the alarm on your phone. Regardless of how long you sleep for, make sure you give yourself enough time to wake up before resuming activities after napping.
When: The next essential thing to consider when planning a nap is the time of day. Napping at the wrong time of day can be problematic. If you try to nap too early in the day, your body probably won’t be ready for sleep. In addition, napping in the afternoon provides more advantages than sleeping later in the morning. Several studies demonstrate that 20 minutes of sleep in the afternoon provides more rest than getting 20 minutes more sleep in the morning. However, if you nap too late in the day, you won’t be tired when it’s time to go to bed. So, the best time to take to nap is between 1 and 4.
Where: Another key element is to create a restful environment. The area should be quiet and dark, that’s a comfortable temperature and has few distractions. Try to limit the amount of noise heard and light filtering in. Use a white noise or sound machine if loud sounds are keeping you from awake. There are apps available on your phone that offer this. Wear eye coverings or sunglasses to block out light. Make sure to turn off the notifications on your phone to prevent being disturbed. Since daytime napping is becoming a workplace trend, many companies have dedicated nap spaces in hopes that it’ll boost employee productivity and creativity. Even if your company has this, a great place to take a nap can be your car because you can control the environment.
Caffeine: When it comes to caffeine, there are few things to remember. Since it takes a little while for it to start working, if you plan on supplementing your nap with some, make sure you ingest it before you nod off. Also, do your best to avoid caffeine after 3:00 since it’s a stimulant and stays in your system longer than you think (its half-life is four to six hours).
Other Considerations: If you want to nap but can’t fall asleep, try a different way to boost energy levels that doesn’t involve caffeine or energy drinks, such as going for a walk. If you don’t have time for a nap, just closing your eyes for a few minutes can reduce stress and help you relax a little. Sometimes, this is all that you need to gather the energy to complete the tasks of your day. Another option to try if you don’t comfortable napping during the day is meditation. Since it produces slower brain waves similar to sleep, it can help reduce fatigue and stress.
Considering the commonness of sleep deprivation in America, it’s not unexpected that there has been a multitude of studies published about the potential benefits of napping. However, more work still needs to be done to understand what patterns of nighttime and daytime sleep are healthy. While just about anyone could benefit from a nap, each person needs to consider their body and sleep cycles.