Are Naps Good For You?
Feb 4th, 2021 •
There’s a lot of debate out there when it comes to discussing whether naps are beneficial or harmful to our health.
On one side of the debate, people say naps can give you the energy boost you need to get through the day and compensate for lost sleep at night. On the other side, there’s research that naps can be harmful to your sleep schedule and overall health.
To make matters more complex, whether a nap is helpful or harmful may also be affected by the duration of the nap itself and the time of day you choose to snooze.
So are naps good for you? We’d like to give you an easy answer, but one does not exist for this question. Instead, we’ll lay out both sides of the debate for you and let you decide whether you’re a nap enthusiast or antagonist.
The Benefits of a Nap
Taking a nap can have a number of positive effects on your mood, energy level, and attention span during the day. Frequently taking naps has also been shown to have positive long-term effects such as improving memory formation, reducing stress, decreasing the risk of heart disease, and aiding in weight management.
Some of the most common short-term benefits of napping include:
- Elevated energy levels
- Decreased sleepiness
- Improved memory
- Increased alertness
- Enhanced cognitive performance
- Boosted creativity
- Improved mathematical and logical reasoning
- Increased reaction time
- Improved motor skills
Naps often coincide with the temporary drop in alertness most people experience in the early afternoon, commonly referred to as the “post-lunch dip”. This is actually more a function of the biological or circadian clock than any reaction to having eaten, although lunch foods rich in carbohydrates may also increase levels of tryptophan in the brain which encourages sleepiness. The post-lunch dip is built into the body’s circadian rhythm, to the extent that some scientists believe that we are naturally biphasic, i.e. designed to take two sleep periods, a long one at night and a short one in the early afternoon.
There are particular cases when a nap can be extremely beneficial; for instance, driving while drowsy is extremely dangerous and responsible for many accidents each year. For example, up to 25% of road accidents are caused by microsleeps, and we are three times more likely to fall asleep at the wheel at 2pm than we are 6pm. A short planned nap of 15 to 20 minutes may increase alertness and motor skills for up to 2-3 hours during this dangerous time. Pulling over and taking a nap can also help you re-energize and improve your motor skills to keep you and others on the road safer.
Shift workers may also experience benefits by napping to offset the extra exhaustion from working the night shift.
Statistics show that we are naturally less alert and more prone to microsleeps (“nodding off”) during this post-lunch dip in the early afternoon. It is also claimed that naps can significantly improve learning and memory recall, with some studies claiming quite dramatic results. Some studies even claim that, over an extended period, a regular afternoon nap can lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health, although the validity of these conclusions are perhaps more debatable.
The Drawbacks of a Nap
Napping may also have negative effects on the body. The short-term negative effects of napping include:
- Sleep Inertia: Waking up groggy
- Nighttime Sleeplessness: Trouble falling asleep at bedtime and getting a good night’s sleep
When some people wake up from a nap, they experience what is known as sleep inertia—a physiological state of drowsiness and disorientation you experience during the transition of sleep to wakefulness. Instead of feeling refreshed from a nap, you may end up feeling more tired.
Many people also find that napping during the day can lead to issues falling asleep at night. The time at which you take your nap and the duration of your nap are both factors affecting how severely your nighttime sleep is disturbed. The worst part is, once you have trouble sleeping at night, you’ll be more tempted to nap the next day and you can become trapped in an endless cycle.
Particularly, taking long naps (those exceeding 30 minutes) frequently may have more harmful effects on your health, such as increased risk of heart failure in those already at risk and other health problems like diabetes and metabolic syndrome, though these cases are more rare.
What’s the Best Way to Take a Nap?
There are many factors you can consider to optimize your napping schedule. The main rules to follow for napping best practices are to keep it short and to nap no later than the early afternoon.
How Long to Nap?
Quick Power Naps
How long you nap determines how alert you feel. If you want to take a quick nap, nap for 10-20 minutes. It will give you a rapid dose of alertness and help you tackle activities, like typing or playing the piano, that require motor skills. Short naps of even 10-15 minutes can help you feel alert, mentally sharp and in a better mood right after you wake up. The best part? The benefits of 10-15 minutes of napping stay for a few hours. And you don’t feel sluggish as you may do after taking a longer nap. This is because you don’t enter the deep sleep state during a quick power nap.
Experts typically recommend a short nap lasting around 30 minutes or less for the short-term benefits of increased alertness and decreased sleepiness. These short naps give you a better chance of avoiding the negative impacts of napping such as sleep inertia (aka grogginess) and nighttime sleeplessness.
If you want a longer nap, it is best to schedule this after lunch when your physiology changes naturally, your blood sugar goes low and your energy is low as well. If you want to take longer naps, set the timer to 1.5 hours as it is a full sleep cycle. You will have deep sleep for 1 hour and light sleep for the next half an hour. If you nap for lesser time, say 1 hour, it will leave you groggy as you will wake up without completing one full cycle of sleep. The idea is to wake up during your light sleep, not deep sleep.
Related: Sleep wake homeostasis
REM sleep or deep sleep helps you make new neural connections and boosts your creative abilities. So if you have a project that requires significant mental power, it is best to take a long nap of about 90 minutes.
The idea of nappuccinos has been around for a while, but was recently popularized in David H. Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. He argues that afternoon naps can boost creativity, enhance functioning, and up productivity. Adding caffeine to the equation turns it into a nappucchino. This jolt gives more energy than a regular nap can provide on its own.
Nappuccinos are rather simple to execute. First, pick a time to nap. This time should be something you can commit to nearly every day. Next drink a cup of coffee. After that, lie down and take a nap. The nap should last anywhere from 15-30 minutes (about the length of any good power nap)—any longer, and you’ll move too deeply into sleep, making it harder to wake up—so make sure to set an alarm. The idea is for you to wake up right after the caffeine has made its way into your bloodstream, which takes about 20 minutes.
Best Places To Nap
Obviously, the best place to take a quick power nap is home, sweet home. You have access to your bed or a couch, and it’s a familiar setting, which makes it easier to fall asleep. Get comfortable, set an alarm, and pass out.
What’s more relaxing than a hot bath? It almost makes you want to close your eyes and go to sleep. Well, you can do just that. More personal version of the at-home nap, a nap in a bath is a bit more stress relieving. Just make sure not to stay in too long or you’ll wake up in cold water with prunes for fingers and toes.
Under Your Desk at Work
Office napping is becoming more acceptable as people begin to see the value of sleep. If you can’t focus and need some quick shut eye at work, on or under your desk is perfect. Unveil that pillow and blanket you’ve been hiding, get comfy, and put a do not disturb sign on your office door.
College students aren’t exactly known for being the best at getting enough hours of sleep each night. If you pulled an all nighter finishing that paper or studying for that exam, treat yourself to a between-class nap to refresh. The library is quiet and cool: two things needed to fall asleep easier.
Finally, take a nice nap in the great outdoors. A warm summer day or slightly cooler fall one is perfect weather to relax and nap. Lay a blanket on the ground or set up a hammock for an easy, naturey sleep.
Research on the Effects of Napping
There is still much to come in the field of sleep science, especially when it comes to napping. When you review the current napping research we have today, you come across a few conflicting opinions.
“Extreme napping”, sometimes called a polyphasic sleep pattern, involves taking regularly planned short naps (e.g. 15 minute naps every 4 hours) in place of a single long nighttime sleep period. While the practice has had a certain amount of anecdotal success – Leonardo da Vinci supposedly adopted a polyphasic sleep regime, as did Buckminster Fuller for a time – it is generally regarded as a passing fad, and most serious studies have concluded that such a practice is stressful, unsustainable and often positively harmful (both physically and psychologically). While the vast majority of mammals are naturally polyphasic sleepers, humans are among the 15% or so of naturally monophasic sleepers.
Here are some of the highlights on napping stats, facts, and findings from research:
- One or two naps per week lowers risk of having a heart attack or stroke by almost 50% compared to those who don’t nap at all [Source]
- Daily, hour-long, midday naps can help reduce blood pressure by an average 5 mm Hg drop [Source]
- Daily, hour-long, afternoon naps improve memory and cognition in older adults [Source]
- 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 [Source]
- A brief nap (5-15 minutes) results in almost immediate benefits that last a limited time (1-3 hours). Longer naps (>30 minutes) result in sleep inertia or drowsiness for a short period after waking but then improve cognitive performance for a longer period. [Source]
- Sleeping too much is significantly associated with psychiatric diseases and higher BMI [Source]
- A 10-minute, nighttime nap has minimal sleep inertia and helps improve short-term performance for a shift worker, but a 30-minute nap does not [Source]
Although the research may be conflicting, one overarching theme is clear: One size nap does not fit all. Those seeking advice on napping should understand that there is no universal set of recommendations; rather, you should consider your personal experiences and needs.
Future of Napping Research
Current research on the effects of napping is still limited and has a ton of room for expansion. There is far more to uncover in sleep research on how naps affect us in the short- and long-term according to many variables such as frequency, duration, and time of day.
With more consistent consensus on napping, we could further discussions on accommodating napping needs for shift workers, students, and even office workers. Concepts like the nap pod could be validated in their usefulness and expand to offices and schools across the nation to help improve productivity, cognition, and health.
The Short Answer: Are Naps Good For You?
While there are no hard and fast rules, there is a general consensus that brief naps (around 30 minutes) can be beneficial in the short-term by improving your mood and alertness, but the long-term effects of napping could potentially be harmful.
To get the most out your naps—and hopefully avoid all of the bad parts—you may have to experiment to find what works best for you. No two people snooze the same after all.