Taking a nap isn’t just for toddlers – but it has to be done correctly to maximize its impact. Here, James Dixon explains the benefits of napping, and the all-important science behind it.
We all love a good nap, right? A nice break in the middle of the day when we can switch off, shut our eyes, and get away from the stresses and travails that can all too often keep us agitated and fatigued.
Well, happily, there are some incredibly well-documented benefits associated with napping, all of which rest on some incredibly robust data. Switching off for just a few minutes everyday can be profoundly good for us both physically and mentally.
What a good nap can do for you
There are plenty of benefits we can gain from regular power naps. Most areas of our cognitive, mental, and physical health can benefit in some way, large or small, from a bit of well-placed shuteye.
For instance, it can help improve cognitive function by providing rest to the brain. It can give your brain a break from the continuous mental activity that is all-too-often asked of us. In turn, this will allow your brain to recharge and process information more efficiently. This can lead to improved memory, concentration, and problem-solving abilities.
Napping can be a great stress management tool. Our bodies produce cortisol, a stress hormone, when we are stressed. Napping has been shown to greatly diminish cortisol levels, which in turn allows the body to relax and relieve tension.
Lack of sleep can lead to irritability, mood swings, and negative emotions. Napping can help to regulate your mood by providing a quick boost of energy and improving your overall emotional wellbeing. It can pick your mood up, reduce feelings of anxiety and depression, and promote a more positive outlook on life.
Napping can also stimulate creativity. During sleep, our brains continue to process information and make neural connections. This can lead to increased creativity and problem-solving skills. I am a creative person myself, and I often find myself particularly inspired after a cheeky 20-minute siesta.
Napping has also been shown to improve physical performance. Taking a nap can enhance endurance, reaction times, and overall cognitive performance. Athletes in particular can benefit from napping as it helps them to recover more fully, faster, and more ably, and to perform at their best.
Furthermore, napping can have some really quite profound health benefits, particularly for cardiovascular health. One observational study found that those who took one or two naps per week had a lower risk of cardiovascular problems such as heart attack, stroke, or heart disease.
However, these data are young – we need more information before we can fully flesh out the relationship between cardiovascular health and napping.
Napping can be a useful tool for alleviating the effects of sleep deprivation. Research suggests that napping can reduce stress and support the immune system, especially for individuals who have had limited sleep the previous night.
By taking a short nap, you can recharge your energy levels. It’s not a substitute for a good night’s sleep, not in the long run. Do ensure that you’re getting a proper night’s sleep of 7-9 hours uninterrupted as often as possible. However, it’s great for overcoming the effects of the odd disrupted night.
Napping offers a variety of benefits, then. From bolstering cognitive function and physical performance to improving cardiovascular health and alleviating the effects of sleep deprivation, there are numerous reasons to consider incorporating napping into your daily routine. It will make you happier, calmer, more productive, and more switched on – a win all round, really.
Do note that the frequency and duration of naps may vary depending on individual needs and preferences, however.
The downsides to napping
Napping is generally a very healthy habit to get into, as we have seen. However, it’s not for everyone. Some of us may experience a few down sides to napping that may make it kind of untenable in the long run.
Some older adults may not do so well with a daily nap. For some, napping during the day can disrupt nighttime sleep, leading to frequent waking and reduced sleep quality. This may be due to changes in sleep patterns and circadian rhythm that occur with age. Older adults who struggle with insomnia or other sleep disorders may want to limit or avoid daytime napping to ensure they can obtain a good night’s sleep.
In addition to potentially disrupting nighttime sleep, long naps have been linked to certain health concerns. Research has found a link between extended daytime napping and certain chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Of course, correlation doesn’t imply causation. We need more data to fully understand these links. But it would do us well to recognise them.
We can also see napping occurring more frequently among those of us with certain health conditions. For example, those who have anxiety or depression, obesity, high blood pressure, and type 1 or type 2 diabetes are more likely to nap during the day.
It remains unclear whether these conditions contribute to increased napping or if napping itself has an impact on a condition’s development or severity. Again, correlation doesn’t imply causation. But the correlation is there and we do need to be wary of it.
Overall, while napping can provide benefits for many of us, there are some possible downsides to it. The effects of napping on health, especially in relation to nighttime sleep, are still not fully understood.
It is crucial to consider individual circumstances and any underlying health conditions when deciding whether to incorporate napping into a daily routine. Further research is necessary to determine how the frequency and duration of naps may affect well-being for different people and under various circumstances.
Sleep biology and your daily nap
Sleep is a complex process that occurs in cycles throughout the night. It is made up of different stages, all characterized by varying levels of brainwave activity, muscle tone, and eye movement. Understanding these stages can help us to understand the importance of both short naps and longer periods of sleep for our overall wellbeing.
This is the initial stage of sleep and serves as a transitional period between wakefulness and sleep. It is the lightest stage and usually lasts for about 1 to 7 minutes. During this stage, the brain produces alpha and theta waves, and muscle activity begins to decrease. People in stage 1 sleep may experience brief awakenings or a feeling of falling.
After stage 1, the sleep cycle progresses to stage 2, which is a slightly deeper level of sleep. This stage typically lasts for about 10 to 25 minutes. In stage 2, brain waves continue to slow down, and bursts of rapid brainwave activity called sleep spindles may occur. The body further relaxes, and heart rate and body temperature decrease as the body prepares for deeper sleep.
Stage 3, or deep sleep
Also known as slow-wave sleep (SWS) or deep sleep, stage 3 is our main restorative sleep stage. It is characterized by slow delta waves in the brain and is commonly referred to as delta sleep.
Stage 3 usually lasts for 20 to 40 minutes. During this stage, the body repairs and regenerates its tissue, bolsters immune system health, and consolidates memories. Waking up during this deep sleep stage can cause grogginess and a feeling of disorientation.
Stage 4, or REM Sleep
Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is the stage where most dreaming occurs. REM sleep typically occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep and repeats multiple times throughout the night, with each REM cycle becoming longer.
During REM sleep, the brain becomes highly active, and the eyes move rapidly (hence its name). Muscles are temporarily paralyzed, except for the essential ones like those used for breathing and eye movement. This paralysis prevents us from acting out our dreams. REM sleep is important for memory consolidation, learning, and emotional regulation.
Throughout the night, these four stages of sleep are cycled through several times. Each cycle typically lasts for about 90 to 120 minutes, starting with stage 1 and progressing to stage 2, stage 3, and finally REM sleep. As the night progresses, the amount of time spent in REM sleep increases, while the time spent in deep sleep decreases.
The duration of a nap plays a crucial role in the sleep stages experienced. Short naps, lasting less than 30 minutes, often consist of stages 1 and 2 sleep. Since there is not enough time to enter deep sleep or REM sleep during these short naps, waking up from them usually results in feeling refreshed and alert.
On the other hand, longer naps, lasting longer than 30 minutes, can lead to the onset of deep sleep, especially in individuals who are sleep-deprived.
Waking up during deep sleep can cause sleep inertia, a state of grogginess and disorientation that can take some time to shake off. To avoid sleep inertia during longer naps, aim for around 90 minutes, allowing for a complete sleep cycle to occur.
How to take a good nap
So how can we ensure that we make the most out of napping and get all the benefits on offer? Honestly, plan. Plan it out well and you should be onto a winner.
Laying the foundations
It is important to find a good place to nap. A peaceful environment can help promote relaxation and improve the quality of sleep during a nap.
Ideally, the area should be free from distractions and have a suitable temperature. It’s important to maintain a cool temperature in your nap environment, as our body temperature naturally drops during sleep. A cooler room can help facilitate a more comfortable and soothing nap.
Comfortable bedding is important. Investing in a comfortable mattress, pillows, and bedding can greatly enhance the quality of your nap. It’s important to choose materials that promote breathability and regulate body temperature for optimal comfort.
Having a comfortable recliner or a cosy couch in your nap environment can provide an alternative to a bed. This can be particularly useful in an office setting where dedicated nap spaces may not be available. Adding a soft blanket or a cushion can further enhance the comfort of your nap spot.
Certain scents, such as lavender or chamomile, have been known to promote relaxation and improve sleep quality. Incorporating essential oils or using a diffuser with calming scents in the nap environment can create a soothing atmosphere.
Timing is another crucial aspect to consider for a successful nap. The best time to nap varies from person to person, but you should generally avoid napping too late in the day to prevent interference with nighttime sleep. Taking a nap in the early afternoon, around 1-3 p.m., is often considered optimal to avoid disrupting the body’s natural circadian rhythm.
It is also important to create a relaxing pre-nap routine, such as dimming the lights, practicing deep breathing exercises, or listening to calming music, to signal the body that it is time to rest. Avoiding caffeine and heavy meals before napping can also help to promote better sleep quality.
Finding the ideal nap routine will require a bit of experimentation and self-awareness. Paying attention to your individual preferences and considering these factors can help you to optimize the benefits of a nap and leave you feeling refreshed and recharged.
By considering these additional factors, you can further optimize your nap environment and create a space that promotes restful and rejuvenating naps.
How long should your nap last?
As above, nap duration is very important. There are a few factors to consider. Generally, a nap of about 20 minutes is good, as it allows you to get some light sleep without entering into deep sleep. This can help boost alertness and alleviate sleepiness. Waking up from deep sleep, on the other hand, can lead to grogginess and worsen sleepiness.
As above, a longer nap of around 90 minutes may be beneficial in some situations. This duration allows the body to go through a complete sleep cycle, including all the stages of sleep, without interrupting deep sleep.
This type of longer nap can be particularly helpful for individuals such as emergency workers and shift workers who are trying to combat fatigue.
It’s also worth noting that dependency on naps, rather than getting consistent nighttime sleep, can contribute to fragmented sleep or even sleep disorders like insomnia. It’s important to strike a balance between napping and maintaining a regular sleep routine. The impact of napping on nighttime sleep may vary from person to person.
Some research suggests that napping primarily affects nighttime sleep in older adults rather than young and middle-aged adults. This indicates that the effects of napping on sleep may be influenced by individual factors and age.
As above, experiment. Find what works for you. Try a few different durations and see which one leaves you feeling best and disrupts your night’s sleep the least.
Timing your nap well
As we have seen, napping too late in the day can disrupt your nighttime sleeping. This in turn can undo many of the benefits we might want to get from napping, whilst also contributing to health concerns and a drop in overall wellbeing.
Experts recommend that adults take naps at least eight hours before their bedtime. This means that if someone typically goes to bed at 11 p.m., they should aim to take a nap before 3 p.m.
One reason for this recommendation is the impact of napping on the body’s circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is the internal biological clock that regulates various bodily processes, including sleep-wake cycles. It follows a 24-hour cycle and influences the times when we feel most alert or sleepy.
Within the circadian rhythm, there are two peak periods of sleepiness. The first and most significant peak occurs during the night, which is when our bodies are naturally programmed to sleep. The second peak falls in the early afternoon, typically after lunchtime. This is often referred to as the post-lunch dip.
The post-lunch dip is a common phenomenon experienced by many people, and it is influenced by both physiological and environmental factors. While eating lunch can contribute to feeling sleepy afterward, the post-lunch dip is primarily linked to your body’s natural rhythms.
Taking a nap during the post-lunch dip can be particularly beneficial for individuals who experience a significant drop in alertness and energy during this time. A short nap of around 20-30 minutes can provide a quick burst of rejuvenation, helping to combat the temporary fatigue. As we have seen, longer naps, on the other hand, may cause grogginess upon waking and interfere with nighttime sleep.
It is important to note that not everyone may experience the post-lunch dip, and individual variations in circadian rhythm can influence the timing and intensity of sleepiness throughout the day. Some of us may naturally feel more alert and energized during the afternoon, while others may still benefit from a nap.
Getting up again
Napping can be a great way to recharge and improve alertness and productivity throughout the day. However, it’s important to nap strategically to avoid interfering with nighttime sleep patterns. One effective technique to ensure a refreshing nap is to set an alarm for the desired nap length (typically around 20 minutes, as above).
In some cases, especially if you’re particularly tired, you may find it difficult to wake up as soon as the alarm goes off. To combat this, setting a second alarm to go off shortly after the first one can help ensure you don’t nap for too long. This can be particularly helpful if you have a tendency to oversleep or struggle with getting up after napping.
Once you’ve woken up from your nap, it can be a good idea to engage in some mild physical activity to shake off any residual sleepiness. Go for a short walk, practice a quick yoga routine, or perform some squats and push ups. It will get the blood and endorphins flowing, getting you ready for your afternoon with a bit of a buzz.
Napping has several benefits, including restoring energy and improving cognitive function and physical performance. It may also have potential health benefits for cardiovascular health and can help alleviate the effects of sleep deprivation.
However, napping may not be suitable for everyone, especially older adults who may experience disruptions in nighttime sleep. Long naps and certain health conditions may be associated with negative consequences.
Napping should be done in a quiet and comfortable space, and the timing and duration of the nap should be considered. It is recommended to take short power naps of around 20 minutes or longer naps of 60-90 minutes for a complete sleep cycle. The ideal nap time is generally before 3 p.m. and should be balanced with maintaining a regular sleep routine.
Factors like temperature, comfortable bedding, minimizing distractions, and creating a nap routine can enhance the nap experience. Setting an alarm is important to prevent deep sleep and sleep inertia. Engaging in mild physical activity after waking up can help transition back into wakefulness.
Experimentation is key. Try to figure out what works for you. The benefits are there for the taking, you just need to cover your bases and get your routines right.