It’s Thursday afternoon. You’re sitting at your computer trying to make a dent in the mountain of work that has been piling up all week when a wave of sleepiness washes over you. Your eyelids feel heavy, and there’s a spot on the sofa that’s starting to look very enticing.
Should you walk over, lie down, and shut your eyes? Or would it be better to walk past the sofa and to the coffee pot for a little caffeinated pick-me-up? Are naps good for you?
The answer to all three of those questions? It depends — mostly on the following three questions:
The best nap is a 10- to 90-minute snooze that lines up with your body’s circadian rhythm or biological clock. A well-timed nap can help make up for previous sleep loss without hindering your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep later that night.
In this article, we’ll discuss the benefits of napping done right. In addition to basic napping guidelines, we’ll explore the different kinds of naps. Not all naps are created equal, but napping at the right time can help you feel more energetic and productive during your day.
Yes, naps are absolutely good for you. Naps help you pay back sleep debt, and low sleep debt means high energy.
Sleep debt is the amount of sleep you’ve missed — as compared to the amount of sleep your body needed — over the last 14 days. Sleep debt is the focal point of the RISE app because it’s the number that best predicts how you feel and perform on any given day. We recommend keeping your sleep debt below five hours. At that level, you can still feel good and perform at or near your best during the day. Once you cross that five-hour mark, the more sleep debt you accumulate, the more problems you’ll face.
In the short term, high sleep debt downgrades your attention span, reflexes/reaction time, and cognitive performance while also negatively impacting your immune system and metabolism. Over time, people with chronic sleep debt have an increased risk for developing Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, cardiovascular disease (heart disease), dementia, mental health disorders, fertility problems, cancer, and other health conditions.
There is a false idea in society that taking naps means you’re lazy, but daytime napping can actually help you catch up on sleep and effectively avoid the aforementioned laundry list of deleterious effects of high sleep debt. Many nappers enjoy additional benefits as well.
But it’s important to understand that there is a right way and a wrong way to nap. The timing and length of your nap both matter. And there are also different kinds of naps that have different benefits. (More on this to come.)
Beyond simply compensating for sleep loss, daytime naps can improve your mood, memory, productivity, and even your problem-solving prowess — among other things:
Naps are better than caffeine at improving alertness and performance, but combining the two can give you the best of both worlds. A coffee nap, or what author Daniel Pink calls a “nappuccino,” is a power nap with a caffeine kick. It involves drinking a cup of coffee just before you lie down for a 10- to 20-minute nap.
The idea is to fall asleep for a few minutes before the caffeine kicks in and then wake up feeling revitalized with a little burst of coffee-infused energy. A number of studies back up the effectiveness of this strategy, including one where sleepy test subjects who took a 15-minute coffee nap performed better and committed fewer errors in a driving simulator than when they were given only coffee or only took a nap.
Have you ever noticed that your energy takes a nosedive around the same time each afternoon? It’s called your afternoon dip, and because your body temperature drops and you feel naturally sleepy during this window, it’s the best time to take a nap.
Your afternoon dip is a natural and predictable part of your circadian rhythm, the internal body clock that governs your sleep-wake cycle and energy fluctuations in roughly 24-hour cycles.
The exact timing of the afternoon dip varies from person to person and day to day. But in general, early risers’ energy tends to wane in the early afternoon, whereas night owls usually don’t feel the slump until mid-afternoon or late afternoon. (The RISE app uses data from your phone and special algorithms to tell you when to expect your afternoon dip each day.)
If you have high sleep debt, the sleepiness you feel during your afternoon dip may be more pronounced. The good news? That extra drowsiness will make it easier to fall asleep during the afternoon nap you’re planning to help pay down the sleep debt you’ve been dragging around.
To prevent your napping efforts from backfiring and piling on even more sleep debt, make sure you don’t nap too long or too late in the day. Naps that come too close to your target bedtime can make it harder to fall asleep that night — as can naps that last longer than 90 minutes, the length of a full sleep cycle of REM and non-REM sleep.
When it comes to finding the ideal nap length, it’s a fine line — a trade off of sorts. A short nap may not be substantial enough to be restorative, but longer naps may come with extra grogginess — also called sleep inertia — upon waking.
In most cases, the length of your nap will depend at least partially on how much time you have to devote to squeezing some extra shut eye into your day. It’s also important to think about why you want to take a nap: What kind of nap are you after?
Did you know that there are different kinds of naps? Sleep scientists David Dinges and Roger Broughton break down daytime sleeping into three distinct categories.
If you haven’t been getting enough sleep, a replacement nap can help you chip away at sleep debt. Even a 15-minute snooze can help ease the negative effects of sleep deprivation.
Like saving for a rainy day, the purpose of a prophylactic nap is to plan ahead for a night of poor sleep or preempt expected sleep loss. It’s a tactic sometimes used by shift workers trying to adjust to new sleep habits dictated by job schedules that are at odds with their natural circadian rhythm. Taking a nap before working the night shift may allow you to bank some alertness for later in the evening.
Some naps are purely for performance and enjoyment. Appetitive napping isn’t just the domain of wellness overachievers looking to take their sleep health to the next level. Anyone can experiment with a well-timed nap as an afternoon pick-me-up. You may never know what you can do with a little extra energy until you have it.
No, naps may not be for everyone. Here are some reasons why.
For one, some people have high sleepability, a natural ability to fall asleep quickly, whether they’re sleep-deprived or not. For those people, napping comes easily. But, even if your sleepability isn’t as high, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not for you. Becoming a good napper is something you can learn. Practice helps. Consistent napping, instead of sporadic attempts at napping, can help as well.
But it’s also possible that you just aren’t genetically predisposed to napping. Naps aren’t just a behavioral choice. There is a genetic component, which can explain why some people nap more than others.
Also, people who struggle with insomnia are often advised against napping. That’s because their treatment usually includes restricting daytime sleep to increase the likelihood of sleeping better at night.
If you’re unable to nap during the day, make sure you meet your sleep need at night in order to keep your sleep debt low and your energy high.
What's the best way to get better sleep? In order to maintain circadian alignment and keep your sleep debt low, your best bet is to stick to a consistent bedtime and wake time that will allow you to get all of the sleep your body needs at night. But sometimes life gets in the way.
When you fall short of meeting your sleep need at night and sleep debt starts to pile up, napping during your afternoon dip can help you make up for the hours of sleep you missed. The RISE app’s Energy Screen will show you the exact timing of your afternoon dip.
Not only will you enjoy the increased daytime energy and health benefits of lowering your sleep debt, you’ll also experience the performance-enhancing benefits that put the “pow” in power napping.
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