The Benefits and Drawbacks of Afternoon Napping

Naps are often thought of as the bad guy, but in reality, they can be quite beneficial to most people who already sleep well at night.


You may be familiar with that feeling of overwhelming sleepiness during the mid-afternoon. It’s common, occurs whether you’ve eaten lunch or not, and is caused by a natural dip in alertness from about 1 to 3 pm. So, if you find yourself fighting off sleep in the middle of the day and you’re somewhere where you can have a nap, then do it.


The Benefits of Napping

Taking the time for a brief nap will relieve sleepiness almost immediately and improve alertness for several hours after waking. And there are many other benefits too. Naps can be very beneficial for workplace performance. Short naps have been routinely demonstrated to reduce accidents and mistakes while also improving attention, concentration, performance, and alertness.


For example, patients with narcolepsy find that planned short naps are crucial to managing their sleepiness every day. Shift workers also benefit greatly from brief naps just before night work or during a break, with some needing a nap before driving home to make sure they aren’t drowsy behind the wheel.


Naps also help boost your mood and ability to manage stress. Naps can be used proactively to gain energy for a late night out. They can even be used effectively to combat drowsy driving when a short snooze is taken just before getting behind the wheel or using heavy machinery.

Naps are not only beneficial because they make us feel less sleepy and more alert, but because they improve our cognitive functioning, reaction times, short-term memory and even our mood.


Research has found those who regularly nap report feeling more alert after a brief nap in the afternoon when compared to those who only nap occasionally.


Another research group found that motor learning, which is where brain pathways change in response to learning a new skill, was significantly greater following a brief afternoon nap for regular nappers when compared to non-nappers.


In fact, the overall benefits of naps are similar to those experienced after consuming caffeine (or other stimulant medications) but without the side effects of caffeine dependency and possibly disrupted sleep at night time.


The Drawbacks of Napping

In spite of these benefits, napping isn’t always the best option for everyone. For example, some people have trouble sleeping any place other than their own bed, making a nap at the office or anywhere else unlikely.


Other people simply have trouble sleeping in the daytime; it could be that certain individuals are more sensitive to the midday dip than others. Those who are may feel sleepier and have an easier time napping.


A long nap or a nap taken too late in the day may adversely affect the length and quality of nighttime sleep. If you have trouble sleeping at night, a nap will only amplify problems.

One study has indicated that napping is associated with an increased risk of heart failure in people already at risk.


How Long Should a Nap Be?

The amount of time you spend napping really depends on the time you have available, how you want the nap to work for you, and your plans for the coming night. Generally speaking, the longer a nap is, the longer you will feel rejuvenated after waking.


Long naps of one to two hours during the afternoon will mean you are less sleepy (and require less sleep) that night. This could mean it will take longer than usual to fall asleep.


If you are planning to stay up later than usual, or if taking a little longer to fall asleep at bedtime is not bothersome, time your nap for about 1.5 hours. This is the length of a normal sleep cycle. You will experience deep sleep for about an hour or so followed by light sleep for the last half an hour.


Waking up during light sleep will leave you feeling refreshed and alert. However, waking during deep sleep will not. If you sleep too long and overshoot the light sleep at the end of a nap, chances are you will wake up feeling sluggish and drowsy. If you do experience feeling drowsy after a nap, don’t worry, this feeling is temporary and will go away after a while.


Another option is to have a brief “power” nap. Brief naps of 10-15 minutes can significantly improve alertness, cognitive performance and mood almost immediately after waking. The benefits typically last for a few hours.


Power naps are great because you won’t experience any sluggish or drowsy feelings after waking. This is because you do not enter any deep sleep during this brief time.


Research suggests, a brief, early to mid-afternoon nap provides the greatest rejuvenation when compared to naps at any other time of the day. However, if you’re struggling to stay awake, a brief nap taken at any time can help you keep alert.


A few tips on getting a great power nap


1. Short, 20-minute power naps are generally much better than longer ones since longer naps cause you to get into deeper stages of sleep, leading to an increased feeling of grogginess upon awakening.


Longer naps can also interfere with nighttime sleep. Shorter naps are typically refreshing and can help increase alertness for a few hours.


2. Make sure that your sleep environment is comfortable, quiet, dark and cool. If you are at home, try to nap only in your bed. If you aren’t at home, find a place where you can either lie down or recline.


Block as much light as possible coming into the room (or get a light-blocking eye mask), and consider using a white noise machine, a fan, or silicone earplugs to block the noise around you.


3. Power naps taken before 2 PM tend not to interfere as much with nighttime sleep, so earlier naps are better. If you find that you have trouble sleeping at night, avoid napping during the day.


If you can’t get through the day on a regular basis without feeling sleepy, napping, or dozing off (even if for a few minutes), speak with your doctor to have a thorough checkup and rule out any medical disorders that may cause excessive daytime sleepiness.


Consider a referral to a sleep specialist since a number of sleep disorders can cause excessive daytime sleepiness (i.e. not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, sleep apnea, nightmares, narcolepsy, circadian rhythm disorders). Depression and stress can also lead to sleepiness and increased napping — talk with your doctor if you’re feeling sad, down or depressed or are having a lack of interest in things you once enjoyed.


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