In the Western world, napping is most often associated with children. While there are cultures where a midday nap is normal even for adults, most of us try to get our rest at night. However, the urge to sleep in the early afternoon is programmed into us, and sometimes very tempting. Are naps good for us? Should you be giving in to the urge for a quick siesta? The science behind these questions offers mixed answers.
Born to Nap?
The circadian rhythm controls our wakefulness and sleepiness. At times when we are meant to be awake, a healthy human body will make hormones such as cortisol that help us to be more alert. Similarly, nighttime brings increases in melatonin and other hormones that support restful sleep.
Researchers in circadian biology have identified a hormonal basis for the common mid-afternoon slump. There are a variety of factors that indicate we are primed for midafternoon napping. Our brain waves become similar to those before sleep, and neurotransmitters shift to support sleepiness rather than wakefulness.
A recent study in chronobiology found that when left to their own schedules with no external cues, people tend to sleep for a short period in the afternoon in addition to longer periods at night. Napping has a place in natural human routines, even if modern life does not always allow it.
The Benefits of Napping
Napping is certainly natural, but is it healthy? Circadian biology research suggests that it may have distinct health benefits. People who nap tend to have lower blood pressure and need less anti-hypertensive medication. In addition, people often have better memory recall and are more alert after a nap, making them more productive and less prone to accidents.
Could Napping Have Downsides?
While researchers and other health professionals have identified clear biological benefits to napping, some people may have drawbacks as well. For example, people who have trouble sleeping at night may see their insomnia get worse if they nap during the day. In addition, even good sleepers will sleep slightly less at night if they also sleep during the day.
Some people are more prone to sleep inertia, in which they feel groggy after waking up. These people may find that a nap actually makes them feel more tired.
Last, some medical disorders can result in an urge to sleep more during the day. If your need to nap is sudden, you should speak to your medical care provider before simply indulging.
Napping Like a Pro
If you decide that a daily nap is a good decision for your body and lifestyle, there are a few ways you can get the most out of it. First, plan to nap for only a short time. A nap longer than 10-30 minutes will make you more likely to have sleep inertia later. It is also prudent that you time your naps carefully. Most people are naturally sleepy around midafternoon, making this a great time to reap the benefits of napping without harming productivity.
If you are going to nap, make it worthwhile. Find a quiet place where you can lay down comfortably and get the shut-eye you need. Give yourself a few minutes to wake up and adjust before resuming your daily activities.
Napping comes with both benefits and drawbacks, but it appears to be a healthy habit overall. If you feel the need to sleep for a short time after lunch and your schedule allows it, you can most likely enjoy a nap with no negative effects.