Health Benefits of Napping (& Risks)

A nap is a light or brief period of sleep, often taken during the day. It can be an excellent way of relaxing, recharging, and boosting your mental health, especially if you’re suffering from sleep deprivation. Many healthy adults rely on short naps to get through the day. Actually, on any given day, approximately a third of American adults nap.

On the other hand, daytime naps may affect your circadian rhythm, leaving you groggy or even leading to insomnia. The key to a good afternoon nap is knowing when to avoid it, when to indulge in it and how long it should take.

Unsure whether naps are good for you? Read on to discover the numerous health benefits of napping, plus the secrets to a successful nap. We’ll also share the various types of naps and some healthy sleep tips to help you go for a suitable choice that will leave you feeling fully refreshed.

Types of Naps

Sleep experts have defined various types of naps, all of which serve a specific function. Thinking about what you’re anticipating to gain from napping is one vital part of making it work for you.

  • Power nap: This is the most beneficial type of napping. It should last for about 10 to 30 minutes. Power naps are the most helpful because they give your brain the appropriate amount of time to relax, reenergize and reset. It’s an ideal way of managing stress while still enjoying the health benefits of taking a short nap.
  • Recovery nap: Sleep deprivation often leaves an individual feeling tired and sleepy the following day. If you have trouble falling asleep, you may take this type of nap the following day to compensate for the sleep loss.
  • Prophylactic nap: This kind of nap is taken in anticipation of sleep loss to prevent sleepiness and the effects of sleep deprivation. For instance, night shift workers and travelers may schedule naps before their shifts or trip to help them stay alert while working or traveling. 
  • Appetitive nap: Unlike other types of naps, appetitive naps are taken for enjoyment rather physical need or fatigue.
  • Essential nap: Patients often have a greater need for sleep and rest. Their immune system requires extra energy to fight off pathogens and promote healing. Naps taken when you’re sick are considered essential.
  • Fulfillment nap: Taken in children due to their greater need for sleep during development.

Health Benefits of Power Naps

When done correctly, there’s nothing wrong with taking regular daytime naps. In fact, a short midday nap can significantly boost your physical and mental health. Below, we’ll talk about the benefits of napping in great detail.

Long-term Memory Improvement

Napping has the potential to promote memory consolidation. This is the process where your brain turns the information you learn into long-term memory. Individuals who take short naps during the day retain more of what they’ve studied than those who don’t. If you’re interested in reading and remembering what you learn more effectively, consider incorporating power naps into your learning regimen.

Napping gives your brain the much-needed time to reset and retain data, process it, and help you memorize it. This is essential to anyone who studies or works at a place where memory is crucial.

Napping Can Boost Your Immunity

Aside from practicing physical distancing and washing your hands, regular napping can significantly help your immune system. Sleep deprivation, especially repeated, chronic lack of sleep, can affect your immune and neuroendocrine functions by increasing cytokines (inflammatory molecules) and stress hormones, such as cortisol and norepinephrine. Counteracting this with frequent naps can improve your immune system and cellular function.

For instance, in a certain 2015 study, 11 healthy young men were restricted to a night of 2 hours of sleep. Their blood and urine tests measured high cytokines and norepinephrine levels after sleep deprivation. The following day, one group took 2 half-hour naps and then slept a whole night. The naps helped reduce cytokine and norepinephrine levels. They helped return these levels to normal as though the young men had never lost sleep.

Can Improve Night Alertness

For night shift workers who have to stay up all night long, sleep studies have shown that daytime naps (of between 30 minutes to four hours) taken before the shift can improve performance, alertness, and reaction time.

These naps can also improve your nighttime driving alertness. However, most of these sleep studies also mention the use of other stimulants, such as caffeine, to improve alertness. But it’s important to note that, unlike caffeine, naps provide more extended and less graded changes in alertness, mood, and performance.

Frequent Power Naps Can Improve Daytime Alertness

In addition to night alertness, midday naps can improve mental alertness and performance. However, shorter naps tend to be more effective than longer ones. While a longer nap can still produce the same effects as the short one, it may bring about a period of impaired alertness.

Other merits of napping during the day include:

  • Relaxation
  • Reduced fatigue
  • Helps regulate emotions
  • Improve your physical stamina
  • Decreases the risk of cognitive dysfunction
  • Reduces cardiovascular disease risk

On the other hand, it’s worth noting that other studies show that regular napping has negative long-term effects. Ultimately, if you can take short naps and feel alert and rejuvenated upon waking, feel free to do so.

Nap Duration: How Long Should Your Nap Be?

One crucial factor contributing significantly to the varied effects naps come with is duration. Whenever you fall asleep, your body starts moving through different sleep stages, ranging from REM sleep to deep sleep. Research has it that a 5-minute nap is too short to produce notable benefits as it can’t get deep enough through the sleep stages.

On the flip side, napping for 30 minutes or more gives your body time to enter deep sleep (slow-wave sleep). However, waking up from deep sleep can leave you feeling tired for about an hour.

With that being said, the best nap length is one prolonged enough to be rejuvenating but not too long to cause sleep inertia (one-hour period of drowsiness). Naps lasting 10 – 20 minutes are generally considered the perfect length. These power naps offer recovery benefits without leaving you feeling groggy afterward.

Healthy adults who need to take longer naps shouldn’t do so right before they need to be alert. Remember, daytime napping could significantly interfere with your nighttime sleep. And while teenagers need more sleep, it's not wise for them to take long daytime naps as these might only end up disrupting their nighttime sleep.

What Harm Can Naps Do?

While you can greatly benefit from an afternoon nap, it has some potential disadvantages, with the biggest ones affecting sleep. For starters, taking long, daily naps can signify an underlying medical problem, like cardiovascular condition, mental health concern, or even diabetes. Plus, taking a longer nap can contribute to diminished productivity and is mainly correlated with high mortality among older adults.

Some of the common adverse outcomes of excessive napping are:

  • Sleep inertia: Individuals who take longer naps may experience temporarily reduced alertness and weakened cognitive functions immediately after waking up. Sleep inertia can contribute to diminished work performance and human error.
  • Disrupting nighttime sleep: People who take long naps late in the day may not be able to get the restorative sleep they need. This can easily become a self-perpetuating cycle. You may want to start limiting your naps, especially if you have insomnia issues.

So, What’s the Best Way to Nap?

For the best and most beneficial naps, follow these tips:

  • Don’t nap for more than 30 minutes: Limiting your nap length can prevent you from entering deep sleep phases, keeping you from waking up feeling groggy.
  • Create a restful environment: Set up the environment as you would for nighttime rest. Nap in a dark and quiet place with few distractions and comfortable room temperature. Try a white noise machine or an eye mask, if those help you.
  • Avoid taking late naps: Napping after 3 p.m. can greatly interfere with your nighttime sleep. Individual factors like your sleep schedule, age, and need for sleep can also play a pivotal role in determining the perfect time of day to nap. Generally, the natural slump time for humans is between 1 – 3 p.m.
  • Consider a coffee nap: Take a cup of coffee right before you nap. Upon waking, you’ll feel refreshed, and the caffeine starts kicking in, thus making for a productive post-nap experience. However, don’t drink coffee late in the day, or you may have trouble falling asleep. Aside from coffee, alcohol impacts sleep negatively by suppressing the central nervous system. So, it's wise to refrain from drinking a few hours before bed. 

Is Napping Right for You?

While naps are beneficial, they aren’t for everyone. Sleep experts recommend looking critically at your afternoon sleep. Do you take daily naps just to get by? Is daytime napping a planned activity, or do you simply doze off at your desk? Napping may be ideal for you if you’re working night shifts or want to make up for a poor night’s rest.

However, frequent daytime fatigue can signify a severe sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea and insomnia, that should be evaluated by a professional doctor. So, if your daytime tiredness persists, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider, who can help diagnose whether your condition needs treatment.

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