Nap time. It can feel like a much-needed and glorious relief from the stressors of life. Now that Daylight’s saving has ended and the sun sets sooner, it can be tempting to catch some ZZZ’s. The media celebrates nap time, and big companies such as Google and Uber have installed nap pods for their employees to use whenever they’re feeling drowsy. News outlets boast midday naps can greatly improve productivity and creativity, and statistics show about one-third of Americans take an afternoon nap each day. With all the buzz news around naps, we wanted to take a deeper look at the science behind nap time to figure out if naps are healthy or harmful.
Benefits of Nap Time
There are proven benefits of napping that make it worth considering. Naps have been found to alleviate stress and reduce impulse control. Sageherian and Rose (2020) recently looked at the cognitive performance of older adults who do and do not take an afternoon nap and found no difference in performance, which tells us naps don’t appear to hurt cognitive function.
On the contrary, Ong et al. (2020) found increased memory of word pairs in participants who took a 90-minute nap. These selected studies do not appear to be any immediate harm with nap time, and sleep can help our brains transfer information from short-term to long-term memory. Thus, a brief nap time may be beneficial for retaining information when studying for an exam, but there are downsides to napping.
Consequences of Nap Time
While taking naps can feel refreshing and needed, there are consequences to excessive napping that can impair overall sleep. We describe below that the ideal nap time is approximately 20 minutes because it is short enough to feel refreshed without sacrificing nighttime sleep or feeling groggy.
If you nap too long, you can experience sleep inertia or the groggy, disoriented feeling that occurs when waking up during Stage three of non-REM sleep. During the third stage of non-REM sleep, you are in a deep sleep, and the brain is producing very slow delta waves. It is challenging to wake someone up during this stage of sleep, and there is no eye movement or muscle activity. When woken up during this stage, people often report feeling groggy, disoriented, and more tired than before the nap. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to time the stages of sleep correctly to ensure you are woken up at the ideal time because everyone’s sleep cycle looks slightly different.
Another consequence of napping is that it can disrupt the nighttime sleep cycle. While taking a nap may feel like an appropriate move when feeling tired, it can cause a poor night of sleep that night and continue the cycle of needing an afternoon nap to feel functional. If you find that your sleep schedule has been interrupted and you’re struggling to get back on track, consider the following infographic to fix your sleep schedule.
In addition to the problems associated with sleep deprivation and feeling groggy, research has explored other impacts of naps. Lau et al. (2020) recently found that a 90-minute nap can cause an increase in perceived angry faces, which can lead to depression-related symptoms. Doctors have also stated that the frequent urge to nap may be related to an underlying illness, so it’s important to seek medical attention if the need to nap impacts your life.
Moreover, physicians have found that frequent long naps can cause serious health conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. Frequent long naps are also linked with a lower life expectancy, but researchers agree more research is needed on this relationship. We stated earlier that brief naps could improve cognitive functions such as memory, but longer naps can have the opposite effect and impair cognitive functioning.
Different Types of Naps
Naps serve different functions, and if you are a frequent napper, it’s important to determine what type of naps you are taking.
- Recovery Nap – This form of nap occurs during periods of sleep deprivation. These types of naps can occur after late nights or a poor night of sleep and are used to help compensate for sleep loss the night before.
- Prophylactic Nap – This form of nap is precautionary and is typically used by those who work overnight shifts. People who take these types of naps want to prepare for potential sleep loss ahead of time.
- Appetitive Nap – These types of naps are taken for enjoyment.
- Essential Nap – These types of naps are taken during periods of sickness when the body needs more sleep to fight off an infection or virus.
Understanding the napping type or reasoning for your nap can help you determine if it’s necessary or something that you can avoid. As we’ve found from the selected studies, nap time does have some benefits, but frequent napping can be linked to an underlying health condition or chronic sleep deprivation. It’s helpful to assess the need for nap time to understand better how it may impact your health.
How to Nap
If you must nap, some guidelines will help prevent it from interfering with your nighttime sleep and feeling more rested. Timing of the nap is crucial. Our bodies naturally experience a circadian dip in the afternoon, so taking a nap between one and three hours will align with the bodies’ rhythm. Naps should be short, although the exact nap time is debated amongst experts.
Some say 20-minute naps are sufficient, while others argue a 90-minute nap allows for one complete sleep cycle. However, experts agree that naps any longer than 90 minutes risks feelings of grogginess and trouble falling asleep later that night. Choose a nap time between 20 and 90 minutes that works for your body and sleep cycle; you may need to play around with the time to ensure you’re waking up feeling refreshed rather than more tired. Additionally, choose a nap spot that’s quiet and comfortable.
When crunched for time, it can seem like 20 – 90 minute naps are too short to feel refreshed. Consider using a weighted blanket if you feel the need to nap and struggle with falling asleep due to excessive worries or insomnia. Weighted blanket research has demonstrated its ability to reduce physiological symptoms of anxiety and subsequently help people fall asleep quicker. Using a weighted blanket can help make naps efficient, so you aren’t wasting too much time of your day trying to fall asleep for mid-afternoon nap time.