Oh, if I could just take a nap! you say, as you practically drift off at your desk. Well, why don't you? Turns out, napping — in the right circumstances — is linked to a host of health benefits.
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Let's break down what we mean by the "right circumstances."
"We tell patients that napping is appropriate for people who are already efficient sleepers," says W. Chris Winter, MD, sleep specialist at Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It. Meaning, you typically sleep well at night. But, for whatever reason (an overnight plane ride, a day you had to work unusually late to meet a deadline), you missed out on your regular zzzs and are dragging today. In that case, a nap is for you.
Naps can work against you, though, if you typically struggle to fall asleep at night or have insomnia. If that's you, taking a nap during the day will likely make you less sleepy come bedtime (hello, vicious cycle).
How to Nap Like a Pro
But let's assume that, for you, naps are a go. Dr. Winter advises sticking to 20 to 25 minutes; any longer and you might come out of a nap with "sleep inertia," or that drowsy, where-am-I-what-day-is-it feeling.
If possible, when you do nap, lay down at around the same time every day, so that your brain knows when to expect sleep and when to wake up, he says. Scheduling a nap before 2 p.m., so as not to interfere with that night's sleep, is ideal.
Ultimately, though, a nap doesn't mean you have to sleep. In fact, sometimes forcing yourself to snooze at a certain time can feel like too much pressure. Instead, go into a dark room, turn off your devices, take your shoes off, lay in bed in a comfortable position, close your eyes and think about something pleasant and relaxing, says Dr. Winter. "If you fall asleep, that's awesome. If you don't, you can still be profoundly impacted by a period of rest," he says. Basically, no matter what happens in there, it's a win, and you'll likely feel recharged afterward. "This mentality is a great way to approach naps, and sleep in general," he says.
"If you fall asleep, that's awesome. If you don't, you can still be profoundly impacted by a period of rest."
Why You Should Schedule In a Siesta
Now, in case you need more convincing, here are five healthy benefits tied to napping.
1. Protect your ticker. A little rest may do your heart good. In a study that included more than 3,600 people, those who reported napping once or twice a week were observed to have a lower risk of heart attack and stroke than non-nappers, per research published September 2019 in the journal Heart. The authors hypothesized that taking the occasional nap or two to catch up on sleep can help alleviate stress, which, in turn, reduces the risk of heart problems. (It's worth noting, though, that daily nappers didn't see the same benefit.)
2. Restore your immunity. Ever feel so run down after a string of poor sleep that you practically feel sick? The answer: Take a nap. In a small study published March 2015 in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 11 healthy men were restricted to just two hours of sleep one night. The next day, the men either took a 30-minute morning and afternoon nap or pushed through without one. Researchers found that while sleep deprivation threw off certain biomarkers associated with stress and immune function, napping helped restore those levels back to normal.
3. Sharpen your mind. Have something big looming over your head? Definitely sleep on it. In fact, go get horizontal right now. A February 2019 study in the Journal of Sleep Research found that napping after a learning task helped the brain interpret information better — basically, people were more insightful upon waking, which is a powerful problem-solving tool that might help you gain awareness and reach conclusions you otherwise wouldn't. Now that's intelligent thinking.
4. Boost your memory. Among the cognitive benefits of taking a short snooze, the ability to sharpen your brain and retain info is tops. Per a January 2019 study in Sleep, young adults learned educational info and then either continued to study, napped for one hour or took a break. Napping enhanced their memory just as effectively as continuing to study. They also reported better alertness for the rest of the day, which boosted their productivity. And hey, when a little siesta can recharge you enough to get a workout in or meet up with friends for happy hour, we say count that as a healthy win, too.
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- Heart: "Association of napping with incident cardiovascular events in a prospective cohort study"
- The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism: "Napping Reverses the Salivary Interleukin-6 and Urinary Norepinephrine Changes Induced by Sleep Restriction"
- Journal of Sleep Research: "Nap-mediated benefit to implicit information processing across age using an affective priming paradigm."
- Sleep: "The long-term memory benefits of a daytime nap compared with cramming"