Black man napping in hammock in back yard
  • The Sound Sleeper

Naps: Nip them in the bud or enjoy guilt-free?

More people than ever are working from home, which provides a greater opportunity to nap in the middle of the workday. Is this a good idea or can it do you more harm than good? The answer depends on a few factors and your overall sleep situation.

The guilt-free nap

The sweet spot for napping seems to be the 20-minute power nap. Give or take a few minutes, this range is just the right amount of time to doze off and wake up refreshed, while also boosting your short- and long-term memory and ability to learn. Other positive effects mirror what you get from a good night’s sleep — a reduction in blood pressure, pain sensitivity and stress, plus a boost in immunity. Another reason to keep a nap short is that you want to avoid excessive REM sleep, which would not be refreshing and could interfere with your sleep later that evening.

Night or shift work impacts both sleep quality and length, and these workers average one to four fewer hours of sleep per night compared to day workers. Studies have found that napping during a break can be a good thing for the night shift worker, leading to decreased sleepiness and improved performance. Some people with this schedule find a “caffeine nap” particularly helpful — drinking a cup of coffee or caffeinated tea before taking a short nap. Because it takes about 20 minutes for caffeine to take effect, the combination results in feeling extremely alert upon awakening.

The nip-it-in-the bud nap

Longer naps, however, can be problematic. When you nap for 60 minutes or longer, you fall into a deeper state of sleep and can wake up groggy, feeling worse than before the nap. “Sleep inertia” is the feeling of disorientation following a nap, and the resulting decrease in mental ability more than cancels out any benefits.

Keep in mind that naps should be used when you haven’t slept long enough (i.e., when your sleep duration was insufficient) and not to make up for poor quality sleep. And they should occur during the lull of the day, between lunch and up to 3 pm, to correspond to your circadian rhythm, your natural sleep-wake cycle.
In addition, taking frequent, lengthy naps is associated with health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and depression, as well as higher mortality, especially in older adults. Long daytime naps can also interfere with your nighttime sleep, placing you in a vicious cycle of inferior nighttime sleep and heavy reliance on napping to make up for it.

A look at why you need sleep

An important consideration is why you are napping. Do you need just a quick pick-me-up or are you looking to make up for sleep you didn’t get the night before? If you regularly find yourself in the latter situation, think about whether you have developed a napping habit to the detriment of your nighttime sleep. You may have underlying health issues contributing to poor sleep, which warrants a discussion with your doctor.

To nap or not to nap

An afternoon power nap can be a good alternative to a caffeinated beverage, though you might be able to get the same alertness boost from some brief outdoor exercise. If, however, a quick snooze gives you a new lease on life, by all means enjoy it without guilt. Finally, a nap should be treated like sleep — it should occur in a dark, quiet, cool and comfortable place. There should be no digital interruptions except for an alarm to wake you up. And you should apply the same calming strategies prior to a nap as you would before sleep, such as a short meditation or breathing exercise.

Sources: Ruth L F Leong, et al. (2020) Sleep; Rajiv Dhand, et al. (2006) Curr Opin Pulm Med; Brice Faraut et al. (2017) Sleep Medicine Reviews; Jeanne S Ruggiero, et al. (2014) Biol Res Nurs; Mayo Clinic; Sleep Foundation

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