To Nap or Not to Nap?—The Latest Research Is Debatable

Read some of the latest napping research results and learn how complicated the science of napping really is.

By Andrea Pisani Babich

Personally, I always answer this question in the affirmative. Unless it’s after 5:00pm when I might try to push through until bedtime or kid myself into thinking that I can take a 20-minute nap and wake up to resume the remainder of the evening…Two hours later…

Luckily, there’s been a lot of research lately on the benefits of napping, which, frankly, seems like a no-brainer to me—naps: good; sleepiness: bad—but, hey, I don’t make the news, I just report it. Apparently, the topic of napping is more controversial than that.

Napping and Cardiovascular Health

There’s the new study recently published in the journal Heart that showed that people who napped once or twice a week reduced their risk of heart attack or stroke by almost 50% compared to those who did not nap at all. So, you’d think that napping more often might improve your heart health even more, but you’d be wrong.

In this study, participants who napped more than twice a week experienced no reduced risk. The length of the naps did not appear to bear any significance. Twice weekly naps ranging from 5 to 60 minutes were associated with the same reduced risk of a cardiovascular event.

Compare those results to data collected by Manolis Kallistratos, a cardiologist in Greece who presented the results of his study at the American College of Cardiology’s 68th Annual Scientific Session in March of 2019. Kallistratos reported that daily, hour-long midday naps were associated with an average 5 mm HG drop in 24-hour systolic blood pressure. To put that in perspective, other commonly prescribed lifestyle changes, like reducing salt and alcohol intake, reduce blood pressure 3-5 mm Hg. Kallistratos notes that even a drop in blood pressure as small as 2 mm Hg can reduce the risk of heart attack by as much as 10%.

Those are pretty impressive results for just snoozing an hour every day. But most people might struggle to reconcile those findings with the data from the previous study that showed no association between daily napping and improved heart health. Does the duration of the nap matter or not? Is napping everyday better than napping only twice a week? Hard to tell from these two studies.

Napping and Mental Sharpness

Let’s look at some research on the effects of napping on mental acuity. In China, where napping is common and sometimes mandatory, researchers found that a daily, hour-long nap was optimal for boosting mental acuity in older adults. In fact, in this study, older adults (65+ years) who took hour-long naps every day after lunch performed better on mental tests than those who took shorter or longer naps or no naps at all.

Ok, there’s some more corroboration for the benefits of daily, hour-long naps. And similar results have been found for young children.

A study co-authored by Sara Mednik, associate professor of cognitive sciences at the University of California Irvine and author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life, gathered data on nearly 4,000 fourth, fifth, and sixth graders in China—China because regular nappers were easier to find there than in the US.

The study, published in the journal Sleep, found that children who napped three or more times a week for 30 to 60 minutes saw a 7.6% boost in their academic performance, most notably in the sixth grade. Teachers also reported fewer behavioral problems as well as better academic achievement in these students. Furthermore, the students themselves reported feeling happier and more self-controlled.

Again, more support for frequent hour-long naps.

Napping for Preschoolers

Any parent or preschool teacher will tell you that children three to five years old need daily naps. But researchers backed by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute were able to provide hard data showing that preschoolers who napped regularly for an average of 1.25 hours improved their recall by 10% compared to children who did not nap at all. While few would deny that preschoolers need to nap regularly, this study provides evidence that supports educators and daycare center directors in recommending daily naps for their charges.

Sounds like frequent naps lasting about an hour is the magic ticket, right? Well, that’s what the research suggests, but most sleep experts, including the National Sleep Foundation, commonly recommend 20 to 30 minute naps for mid-day pick-me-ups. Longer naps run the risk of causing sleep inertia, which can make you feel more foggy rather than refreshed. That advice tends to complicate the conclusions most people would draw from a scan of recent napping research.

The Current State of Napping Research

This is just a very small sample of recent research on the effects of napping on health and wellbeing. But even a quick glance at the literature reveals a few aspects of napping research that lead to confusing, if not conflicting, conclusions:

  • Different age groups have different napping needs. (You don’t need research studies to tell you this, but nonetheless, they exist.)
  • Different wellness goals such as heart health, enhanced memory, elevated mood, or improved athletic performance may require different napping duration and frequency.
  • Napping frequency is just as significant as napping duration since both can impact outcomes.
  • Different people respond to napping in different ways.
  • As with any field of research, one study does not a conclusion make.

Clearly, one size nap does not fit all. When it comes to napping recommendations, it seems experts need to take a more granular approach. And people looking for advice on napping should understand that their individual needs may not be met by universal recommendations.

Dr. Michael Breus, a.k.a The Sleep Doctor, gives a thorough summary of different types of naps for different needs. His advice may be helpful when deciding if you will nap, when you will nap, and how long you will nap.

The Future of Napping Research

You don’t have to be a sleep researcher looking for grant money to acknowledge that the state of sleep research is confusing and that more work needs to be done to clarify the mental and physical health benefits of napping. Not to mention providing a clearer definition of “napping” and how frequently naps should occur in order to promote overall wellness.

More consistent and conclusive research could help to nurture the budding interest in accommodating workers’ and students’ napping needs and preferences⁠—such as the introduction of nap pods to offices and schools⁠—making people at all stages of life smarter, healthier, and happier.


Other Sources
  • Parentology: parentology.com/napping-in-school-study/
  • American Psychological Association: apa.org/monitor/2016/07-08/naps
  • The Sleep Doctor: thesleepdoctor.com/2017/12/21/know-9-types-naps-different-advantages/

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