Some days I feel exhausted by 2:30pm. You know those days? The kids are fighting, complaining or not wanting to go to school. Work is particularly hectic. You’re not feeling so hot; maybe it’s a cold, maybe stress. You feel like shutting off your life for a day!
THE BLISS OF A WELL-TIMED NAP vs THE DARK SIDE
It’s on a day like this that a short power nap, at the right time, can feel absolutely blissful! After a nap, I often wake up feeling ten times more alert and joyful than when I collapsed into sleep, making it a welcome shift on days that I have a heavy workload or a critical deadline. Even with the experienced benefits, I’ve often wondered if napping has its dark side. Could my mood-altering, mid-day nap have unintended negative side effects?
It’s understandable if you are confused by this question. An internet search on ‘Are naps good or bad?’ resulted in almost 1.5 million results and widely varying information and opinions. I found articles with titles like ‘Afternoon Naps Could Be Bad For Your Toddler’, ‘Why take an afternoon nap raises risk of an EARLY DEATH by a third’ and ‘5 Reasons Why You Should Take a Nap Every Day’. It’s clear that it will take some time to filter out the nonsense.
So let’s look at what we know.
THE SCIENECE OF NAPPING
Your body is programmed to move through a monophasic sleep pattern, which means you are designed to feel drowsy once over a 24-hour period, at around the same time each day. This is how your biological clock, or your circadian rhythm, works. So, theoretically, if you are getting adequate sleep each night, you will not have the urge to nap. Does that mean, then, that if you do have the urge to nap you’re not getting adequate sleep?
The answer seems to be ‘yes’… with exceptions. Even if you occasionally feel like sleeping during the day, it is most likely that you are not sleeping well enough. Your most reliable ‘good sleep’ measuring stick is how awake and alert you feel throughout the day.
However, the exception is that other factors do play a role, such as stress, physical/mental effort and mood disorders, which are known to directly affect your quality of sleep. But, it’s complicated. For example, we can say that depression can make you tired during the day, but we can’t say whether the fatigue that you feel is due to the depression or the poor sleep that can be a symptom of depression. You can say the same for stress.
Even with those exceptions, if you feel sleepy during the day and you feel like your night-time sleep quality can be improved, can napping help?
IF CEOs DO IT, IT MUST BE GOOD FOR YOU!
We know that napping can be a simple, healthy way to quickly boost mood, alertness and productivity. Many people, including elite athletes and Fortune 500 CEOs, do it. Simply anticipating a nap is enough to lower blood pressure. And it’s a much better alternative to caffeine for the mid-day blues. So the simple answer would be ‘Yes, napping can help.’ As long as you do it right.
The most common concern is that a nap negatively affects your sleep the night after you nap. There are a few trusted ways to make sure you minimize, or even avoid, that possibility.
ENSURING A SUCCESSFUL NAP
The first is aiming to nap for a specific amount of time. If you don’t have a lot of time, make it 20 minutes. If you have the time, make it 90 minutes. The twenty-minute option ends after the first two stages of sleep, so you wake up early enough not to feel groggy. The ninety-minute option takes you through an entire sleep cycle – through all four nREM stages and one REM stage - waking you up at the beginning of a new one and ensuring that you feel refreshed and alert. Studies show that experiencing even a small amount of REM sleep can boost motor-skill performance by 16%. (1)
Keep in mind that napping is kind of like snacking. It can’t replace the nourishment of a full, healthy meal, but it can replenish energy stores and allow you to carry on with your busy, demanding day.
There are two other important principles around napping. One is the timing. The ideal nap is halfway between when you wake up and when you go to sleep. For example, if you went to sleep at 11pm and woke up at 7am, aim to take an afternoon nap at around 3pm. The other is preparation. Take a similar approach to your naps as you do with your nightly bedtime routine. Choose a location that is quiet, where you won’t be interrupted. Take a few minutes to relax; do some deep breathing or meditation. If you have more time, a gentle, bedtime yoga class, guided meditation or yoga nidra for sleep can be highly effective. Block out light, use earplugs if you need to and make sure your room isn’t too hot or too cold.
Try these resources to improve the success of your next power nap:
Free, Sleep-Inducing, Guided Meditation Albums:
Free Yoga classes for Better Sleep:
One Subscriber Yoga Class for Sleep:
Napping can be the difference between feeling groggy and alert after your lunch-time break. If you’re struggling with sleep, it can improve your overall well-being and make you feel happier and more relaxed. The key is to understand how our sleep cycles work and to take the time to follow the rules that take advantage of our natural rhythms.
1. Maas, Dr. James and Davis, Haley A. Sleep to Win!