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Health Benefits of Napping

Written by Jocelyn Zakri MPH, RRT, RPSGT, RST

What is a nap? We define a nap as mid-day sleeping of under an hour, during which the body experiences light sleep. Longer sleep periods during the day are called siestas.

You might hear about microsleep periods and think these are naps. They are not.  Microsleep is unintentional brief (as little as a few seconds) of sleep, often of only part of the brain, and usually unknown (not consciously perceived) by the person.  You do not want to have microsleep episodes.  Indeed, intentional naps are a preventative measure against microsleep.

The afternoon slump

Thankfully, short afternoon naps are good for us, so there’s no need to feel guilty about the afternoon slump – the midday energy slump experienced by many adults. But why does this phenomenon happen?

The afternoon slump can be attributed to a variety of factors, from a heavy lunch to sheer boredom. However, your body may also be signalling you to fall asleep. Your body temperature changes throughout the day as part of your circadian rhythm. Its lowest point is in the morning just before waking, and it rises during the day. Between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., however, your body naturally experiences a small dip in temperature, signaling the brain to produce the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. This is a normal part of your circadian rhythm, but it helps explain why you feel sleepy in the afternoon.

Alertness and afternoon slump

Source: JAMA 2006

Benefits of afternoon napping

Is napping good for you? When done correctly, the benefits of napping are numerous. Short naps (of less than 1 hour) are associated with lowered risk of cardiovascular disease, improved productivity, and increased mental performance and learning.

Naps reduce your risk of heart disease

Afternoon naps can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, especially for males, according to a report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Naps reduced the risk of heart problems about as much as statin drugs do (medication designed to lower cholesterol). People who napped at least 30 minutes a day, three times a week, were 37 percent less likely to die from heart disease. Occasional nappers had a 12 percent reduction.

Naps improve mental performance

Research continues to show that daytime napping can improve mental performance in adults. A study in 2006 concluded that regular naps of less than 30 minutes, and even a power nap as short as ten minutes, can improve productivity and mental performance.

Studies like these have led to enthusiasm behind the midday power nap as well as preparation naps for hurry-up-and-wait occupations such as surgeon and airline pilot.  National Geographic even compared the brain to an email system, “sleep—and more specifically, naps—is how you clear out your inbox.”  That’s too simplistic, of course, but sleep in general makes us more receptive to learning.

So we know naps can help us remember things we just learned, but are they better than equivalent period of time awake relaxing or watching television?

Yes, the time spent in napping is better for remembering than the time spent awake.

Naps help you remember

Longer sleep durations such as nighttime sleep are even better for memory than daytime naps. However, research has established that the gains in improved memory occur in the first half of the night. A sleep period of 3.5 hours is pretty much as effective as a period of 7 hours.

Sleep plays an important, if not wholly understood, part in formation of long term memory. Memories are consolidated during sleep. Brain researchers have shown events they call “spindles” happen in Stages 1 and 2 of light sleep and these seem to be connected with memory formation and learning. Short naps can be very effective in facilitating and consolidating learning since the body experiences light sleep. Thus the “power nap”. It is thought that power nap might accelerate memory consolidation by inducing NREM sleep, when light sleep occurs and spindles appear.

Why does light sleep help us learn? One theory is “synaptic pruning” takes place during sleep. This holds that during waking period synapses grow stronger and the number of synapses increases, crowding out the brain’s ability to absorb more information. Sleep is a time when the brain eliminates the number of synapses and frees up resources for further learning. Previous learning is sent to long-term memory. This theory has some animal evidence to support it, but it is just a theory.

How napping affects sleep

All other things being equal, what is better: an afternoon nap or getting more sleep at night? There is no correct answer of course, but the addition of 30-45 minutes in nighttime sleep does not significantly affect measures of vigilance and daytime sleepiness the next afternoon. Mid-day naps do improve performance on the psychomotor vigilance test and they make people less sleepy in the afternoon as measured by the MSLT. Caffeinated beverages also help us over the mid-afternoon hump more than extra sleep at night, too.

The timing of the nap affects your sleep architecture. Morning naps and afternoon naps differ, with people tending to drift off faster in the afternoon for longer naps with more slow-wave deep sleep than morning naps.

Naps over 30 minutes usually bring post-nap inertia, though.  If the sleeper goes into Stage 3, slow-wave sleep, it will be harder to wake up.  The cognitive benefits of the longer naps last longer, too.

However, developing a habit of regularly taking long naps is associated with higher mortality rates, especially among the older population.

Long naps and siestas

The tradition of the siesta in some countries and cultures has posed a question for a long time: is taking a siesta on a regular basis good for you?

Determining this type of thing is tough. It has long been known that people in these countries generally have lower rates of fatal heart disease than their counterparts in siesta-less countries, but nobody ever knew if there was a cause and effect relationship. Maybe other factors such as diet may have been responsible for fewer heart attacks.

  • A 2007 study conducted by epidemiologists at the University of Athens of over 23,000 participants found that siestas were correlated with lower rates in fatal heart attacks, especially in working men.
  • Meanwhile, a study conducted at Hadassah University Hospital in Israel in 2005 looked at a sample of 455 70-year olds and found that those who practiced siestas had a higher death rate.
  • An earlier (2003) Israeli study found that long siestas (over 2 hours) were correlated with increased mortality among men, but that shorter naps and siestas for women had no major correlation with mortality. And siestas appeared to be worse among men with chronic health problems.
  • A 2000 study by Harvard Medical School researchers of people in Costa Rica found that daily siestas in fact increased the effect of heart attacks.
Negative effects of siestas

Source: JAMA 1999

The evidence remains inconclusive whether siestas leads to higher mortality rates from heart attacks. Regardless, the Spanish government (the country most known for its siesta) recently launched a campaign to eliminate the tradition of siestas. Spaniards reportedly sleep an average of 40 minutes less per night than other Europeans and have the highest rate of workplace accidents in the European Union.

Researchers tend to agree that resting in the afternoon without sleeping does not pose any health risk and is often very beneficial. Napping can be taken as a sign of excessive daytime sleepiness, a symptom of many sleep disorders, but this is an example of how we look at sleep differs whether we are looking for pathologies or recreation. Recreational and appositive naps are fun, and not a sign of a disorder.

Daytime napping: power naps and coffee naps

For many, sleeping is fun, and one of the most fun ways to sleep is daytime napping.

There are many ways of napping.  Different lengths, locations, and times of day.  Some people have a regular nap in the afternoon (common in toddlers and retired people), while others have a catnap during their lunch breaks. Opportunity and preferences play a big part in napping behavior.

Some investigators distinguish between appetitive nappers and replacement nappers.

Appetitive nappers can nap at almost any time, and do so often to “tune out” of their surroundings. On the other hand, replacement nappers are trying to catch up on sleep.  Appetitive nappers can nap even when they’re not sleepy, like an afternoon nap.  Replacement nappers are usually not in the mental state or habit that allows them to sleep at will.  

Another way to classify napping is by saying some naps are prophylactic and some are recuperative, respectively before or after sleep loss.  Planned power naps before anticipated periods of busy work can raise performance and cut the risk of sleepiness during times when a person needs to be at the top of his or her game.

The power nap

What used to be called a catnap is now called a power nap. The word “power” makes it socially acceptable for working adults who think of themselves as on the top of their game and helps sell napping to people who might otherwise think of it as an activity for small children and old people.

Usually the power nap is under 20 minutes, so the brain doesn’t have time to go through all the phases of sleep. Longer naps often leave the person groggy upon waking, but power naps can be refreshing without a sleepy hangover.

Some people take their power nap at their place of work – at their desk chair for instance. More ambitious nappers have a cot near their office or even go out to their car for a nap. Most do not use alarm clocks.

How to take the perfect power nap

If all this talk about naps has made you sleepy, embrace it. If you want to take a power nap, follow these tips for success:

  1. Take advantage of the afternoon slump, when your body is already primed to fall asleep.
  2. Don’t sleep at your desk. It takes about twice as long to fall asleep sitting upright versus lying down. Instead, find a dark and cool place.
  3. Use earplugs or a sleep mask to block out extra light and noise.
  4. Meditate and relax. Take slow, deep breaths. Clear your mind of all stress-related thoughts from work.
  5. Don’t sleep for longer than 20 minutes. Set an alarm if you must.

The coffee nap

The coffee nap takes the power nap to the next level. Sleep researchers at the Loughborough University did several tests on fatigued drivers to compare the effects of different methods for a driver can use to stay awake. They put the volunteers in driving simulators while they were sleepy and let them drive. Some of the tests included rolling down windows for cold exposure, blasting the radio and slapping oneself in the face to try to stay awake. But what researchers found worked the best was a Caffeine Nap or Coffee Nap.

Most American adults drink coffee, and caffeine is possibly the most widely used and longest self-administered drug in mankind. Caffeine is a stimulant and is often used when people want to stay awake. The coffee nap is an example of the paradoxical effect of many substances in the body.

How to take a coffee nap

The Coffee Nap is simple: you drink a cup of coffee and immediately take a 15-20 minute nap. Researchers found coffee helps clear your system of adenosine, a chemical which makes you sleepy. The combination of a cup of coffee with an immediate nap chaser provided the most alertness for the longest period of time in tests. The recommendation for a coffee nap is a bit shorter than a power nap – 15 minutes vs 20 minutes.

  1. Drink a cup of coffee right before you sleep, so the caffeine kicks in just as you wake up.
  2. Take advantage of the afternoon slump, when your body is already primed to fall asleep.
  3. Don’t sleep at your desk. It takes about twice as long to fall asleep sitting upright versus lying down. Instead, find a dark and cool place.
  4. Use earplugs or a sleep mask to block out extra light and noise.
  5. Meditate and relax. Take slow, deep breaths. Clear your mind of all stress-related thoughts from work.
  6. Don’t sleep for longer than 15 minutes. Set an alarm if you must.

Best time of day to nap

While the afternoon slump is the ideal time to take a nap, when that slump occurs may depend on whether you’re a lark or an owl.

Wake up Best time to nap Bedtime
Morning larks 6am 1-1:30pm 9-10pm
Night owls 9am 2:30-3pm 12-1am

In 2012, researchers at Stanford University found that caffeine during the day disrupts night sleep more in morning people (larks) than in evening people (owls). Morning larks may want to avoid coffee naps, and opt for regular power naps instead.

Can napping cause insomnia?

Although there is always a risk that daytime naps lead to nighttime insomnia, individuals can learn the specific needs and response of their bodies. Many people can nap in the daytime without nighttime problems.

Insomniacs, especially those attempting sleep restriction therapy, are discouraged from daytime napping because it could make it harder to sleep at night.

The link between insomnia and daytime napping is more prevalent among older adults, although the research is still conflicting on whether there is a cause-and-effect relationship. Retired people take a lot of naps because they have less structured days than younger people, but those of all ages can take naps.

Napping as you age

A Pew Research Center survey found that 34% of U.S. adults nap on any given day. Among those past age 80, the percentage was 52%. Men are more like to nap than women and regular exercisers were more likely to nap than sedentary people.

Little kids often nap as part of their regular day. Old people are also stereotypical nappers. In both these cases, age-related sleep patterns can explain part of the predilection. Toddlers and small children usually need an afternoon nap, and this nap lasts an hour or more. In contrast to adult nappers, toddlers more often go into deep sleep.  Kids need lots of deep sleep to support their growth.

Children are great nappers, partly because they are learning so fast. Many preschools and kindergartens incorporate time for napping in the child’s day. Research has shown naps help children remember things learned earlier in the day and that the children who get the most cognitive benefits are those who nap habitually. When a child skips a regular nap and makes up for the lost sleep time by extending nighttime sleep, the cognitive benefits are not recovered in the makeup sleep.

Researchers have charted how as an infant ages, they’ll spend less time sleeping during the day and more of their total sleep hours during the night, as charted by researchers.

Infant age Average total sleep per 24-hr period Average sleep during the night Average sleep during the day
1 month 14-15 hours 8 hours 6-7 hours
3 months 14-15 hours 10 hours 4-5 hours
6 months 14.2 hours 11 hours 3.4 hours
9 months 13.9 hours 11.2 hours 2.8 hours
12 months 13.9 hours 11.7 hours 2.4 hours
18 months 13.6 hours 11.6 hours 2 hours
24 months 13.2 hours 11.5 hours 1.8 hours

Working adults who nap usually do so in short bursts – the power nap.  Weekends present the opportunity for longer naps.  Power naps do not last long enough to get to slow-wave sleep.  Even short naps can be refreshing.

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