I’m not a daily napper. I travel A LOT, so I do use naps to help my circadian clock adjust to changing time zones, to minimize jet lag, and to ensure I’m getting the amount of daily rest I need. For me, that means sometimes napping on airplanes, and other times catching a nap once I’ve arrived at my destination—or back at home.
I get asked about napping all the time. Is it good for sleep, or bad? When is the best time to nap? Should I be worried—or feel guilty—if I’m tempted to take a nap?
After I walk you through the advantages of napping (and the possible pitfalls), I’m convinced you’ll start thinking about napping differently.
The biology behind napping
Do you feel your energy sag in the early to mid-afternoon? There’s a biological reason behind that slump. We’re biologically designed by evolution to sleep in a long, consolidated stretch throughout the night, and to take a brief period of rest in the middle of the day. Between the hours of 1-3 p.m., body temperature drops and melatonin levels rise. Both are cues for sleep. Even though our modern culture doesn’t support daytime naps—it actually frowns upon them—our bodies remain hard-wired for a midday re-charge. (Think of it as a biological siesta!)
The benefits of naps
Napping gets a bad rap in our culture. There’s a stubborn perception that napping is a sign of laziness. In fact, it’s just the opposite. People who get the most out of napping are very driven and highly motivated. They want to get ahead, and they know that sleep plays a big part in performing at their best in daily life—at work, in relationships, in tackling challenges and goals both physical and mental.
What can napping, as part of a healthy sleep routine, do for you?
2. Improve concentration and accuracy. A well-timed nap can improve your focus and ability to concentrate. A 2009 study found that among nappers, brain activity associated with concentration was as strong in the afternoon as in the morning, while non-nappers saw a decline. A short afternoon nap can improve accuracy, as well as provide a boost to short-term memory.
3. Help you make better decisions. Naps can improve what’s known as cognitive flexibility—that’s your ability to shift your thinking among different concepts, and be adaptive to new information. This flexible thinking is critical to judgment and decision making.
4. Enhance memory and learning. Sleep is critical to your capacity to learn, and to your brain’s ability to process memory. Naps can help to root newly learned information in the brain, and can improve memory recall. One study found that a 60-90-minute nap can aid learning as well as a full night of sleep.
5. Elevate your mood. Research suggests naps help improve emotional regulation, including increasing your ability to tolerate frustration, and reducing your tendency to be impulsive.
6. Boost your creativity. A short nap can elevate activity in the brain’s right hemisphere—that’s the area of the brain that governs creativity and insight. Napping also fosters greater cross-communication between your brain’s right and left hemispheres—encouraging cross-talk between your creative brain and your analytical brain.
7. Reduce your stress. A short dose of sleep during the day can help strengthen the body’s ability to weather stress, especially if you’re short on sleep overall. Recent research shows naps reduce stress and strengthen the immune system in people who are sleep deprived. Napping can also keep blood pressure in check in response to stress.
8. Preserve your physical appearance. Sleep is restorative to the body, inside and out. I think of it as nature’s Botox. Sleep deprivation can make you look tired and fatigued, less healthy and less attractive, according to research. Naps that help supplement daily sleep amounts—without interfering with nighttime rest—can keep you looking young, healthy, and full of energy.
9. Improve physical performance. Elite athletes and professional sports teams have increasingly recognized the pivotal role sleep plays in physical performance. Naps can be a powerful tool for athletes at any level, and for people looking to enhance their physical skills. Napping has been shown to improve motor performance and accuracy, as well as speed, strength and reaction time.
On the other hand, when naps are poorly timed, or result in excessive daytime sleeping they can:
• Interfere with nightly sleep, triggering symptoms of insomnia
• Disrupt healthy circadian rhythms, which are crucial to sleep and to waking performance
• Interfere with mood and daily performance
The key to naps? Getting the timing right
Naps can be a useful tool in maintaining a healthy sleep routines. The trick is to know how to use naps effectively. That means timing naps correctly for your needs and your daily schedule.
How long should a nap last?
You know the feeling of waking from a nap and being disoriented and groggy? That uncomfortable, foggy-headed re-entry to the waking world is a sign you’ve ended a nap while in deep, slow-wave sleep. Waking from deep sleep isn’t going to give you the refreshing boost in focus, alertness, and energy you’re looking for. It’s going to do just the opposite: saddle you with lingering sleep inertia that can actually make your cognitive performance worse, for a period of time.
To avoid this sluggish, where-am-I mental fog, you’ll want to structure the duration of your naps so you wake from lighter sleep.
A nap of less than 20 minutes will:
• Wake you before you enter deep, slow-wave sleep
• Avoid post-nap grogginess and mental sluggishness
• Energize you and make you more alert for the next few hours
A nap of 90 minutes will:
• Take you through a complete sleep cycle, from light sleep to deep sleep and REM sleep, and back to light sleep again
• Refresh, energize, and focus you for the rest of the day
A regular 90-minute nap during the day isn’t practical for many people. That’s okay. People who aren’t shift workers, and who generally keep to what’s considered a typical day-night schedule, shouldn’t need a 90-minute daytime nap on a routine basis. That’s if you’re getting the sleep you need at night. If you do find yourself needing to sleep this much during the day, it’s a signal you’re not getting the rest you need in your nightly sleep, and it’s time to talk with your doctor.
Napping is a detrimental habit if it interferes with your nightly sleep. That includes if a napping habit leads you to pay less attention to sticking with a consistent nightly sleep routine.
What’s the best time of day to nap?
Sara Mednick, PhD, is the author of the book Take a Nap! and a psychologist specializing in sleep as an associate professor at University of California, Riverdale. To calculate their ideal nap time, I’ve encouraged my patients to use Dr. Mednick’s Nap Wheel.
According to Dr. Mednick’s research, the best time to nap is approximately seven hours after you wake for the day. Why? That’s the time you’re going to strike the ideal balance of REM sleep and slow-wave sleep in a nap, giving you both mental and physical restoration and minimizing your post-nap grogginess.
Who shouldn’t nap?
People with insomnia. People with insomnia have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep at night, and likely have disrupted circadian rhythms. If you suffer from insomnia, you might be particularly tempted to nap during the day to make up on the sleep you missed out on the night before. But a daytime nap will decrease the pressure and need for sleep at night, and prolong or exacerbate your insomnia.
People with depression. Depression and other mood disorders are frequently linked to sleep problems, including circadian rhythm disruptions, poor quality nighttime sleep, and unhealthful sleep patterns, including excessive daytime sleepiness. Napping can make these sleep issues—and depression itself—worse.
Napping requires some knowledge and some planning to do well, and not have it interfere with your nightly rest. I think of it as napping with purpose—knowing why you’re napping and making sure you’re doing for the right length of time. That’s the key to getting all the powerful potential benefits from a dose of daytime rest, and getting your best performance out of your waking day. Next, I’ll talk about different types of naps and which one is best for you.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor