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Napping 101: Learning to Master Sleeping During the Day

Sleeping during the day can boost your energy levels, if you do it the right way. This guide will show you how to use naps to your advantage.
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Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
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Man lying on top of desk sleeping during the day

What did Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, and John F. Kennedy have in common? They were all devoted nappers. Although it would be hard to argue that a regular daytime snooze was the key to their success, it might make you wonder: Should I add a nap to my daily routine? Or would that disrupt my sleep at night?

The answer to both of those questions is “maybe.” Here's the thing: In a perfect world, you would get the exact amount of sleep your body needs each night and have the energy you need throughout the day. But in reality, because getting adequate sleep can be a challenge and many of us often feel sleep-deprived, taking a nap now and then can be a viable way to catch up on lost sleep. 

To make sleeping during the day work for and not against you, it helps to be strategic about when, how often, and how long you nap. It’s also useful to consider why you’re feeling tired in the middle of the day. 

Figure Out Why You’re Tired During the Day

Sleeping during the day: A woman lies in bed looking tired

Although a dip in energy in the afternoon is normal (that’s your circadian rhythm at work), all-day low energy is not. If you’re having a hard time keeping your eyes open throughout the day, it’s worth taking the time to figure out why.

In some cases, the reason for having low energy levels during the day is relatively easy to pinpoint. Maybe you’re the parent of a newborn, work the nightshift, or travel frequently and regularly experience jet lag.

Sometimes substances are to blame. Drinking alcohol in excess can cause hangovers and an overwhelming desire to take a nap. Prescription medications, antihistamines, and over-the-counter sleep aids can also cause next-day drowsiness. If none of these explanations applies to you, keep reading. 

One of the most common causes of daytime drowsiness is not getting enough sleep at night. The last three to four decades have seen a significant decrease in the number of hours people sleep each night, and sleep insufficiency has recently been declared a “public health epidemic.” Sleep deprivation, both acute and chronic, can negatively impact cognitive performance, workplace productivity, and overall health.

At the individual level, one of the most reliable ways to predict energy levels during the day is by keeping track of sleep debt. Sleep debt — the sleep you owe your body based on your personal sleep need — is the result of sleep deprivation over several days or weeks. The RISE app uses the last 14 days of sleep data to calculate your sleep debt in hours lost. The higher your sleep debt, the more likely you are to feel tired during the day. 

It is important to note that experiencing any level of sleepiness during the day — at a time other than your afternoon dip — is something you should address. As the late Dr. William Dement, professor and sleep medicine pioneer, tirelessly taught, “Drowsiness is red alert.” It’s usually a signal that you’re suffering from significant sleep debt. Being even a little bit tired means you are already suffering from cognitive and emotional decline and possibly putting yourself (and others) in danger when driving or when doing anything high stakes that requires dexterity and focus. 

What Medical Conditions Are Associated With Chronic Daytime Sleepiness? 

Sleeping during the day: A man meets with a doctor

If you suffer from excessive daytime sleepiness — or hypersomnia — on a regular basis, you might want to consult a sleep medicine doctor. Sleep disorders, including narcolepsy and sleep apnea, can be serious, especially if left untreated. Restless legs syndrome is another sleep disorder that can make it  difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Your doctor may recommend treatments or interventions for better sleep outcomes.

It’s also important to consider the health problems chronic sleep debt may cause. According to the CDC, not getting enough sleep has been linked to Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, weight gain, obesity, depression, and more. 

Well-Timed Daytime Naps Can Help You Catch Up on Lost Sleep 

Sleeping during the day: A man sleeps on a pillow on his desk

Some people drink a cup of coffee when they hit that midday slump. Others prefer to take a nap. Either way, timing is an important element to consider, as doing either of those too close to bedtime can backfire. 

If your nap is too long or too late in the day, it will almost certainly impact that night’s sleep, preventing you from getting the rest you need. To find the optimal time to catch a daytime snooze that won't disrupt your sleep patterns, consider the natural peaks and dips of your circadian rhythm. 

Your circadian rhythm is your internal body clock that tells every cell in the body when to be active and inactive during roughly 24-hour cycles. At Rise, we call it your energy schedule because it predicts when your body is ready to perform and when it wants to rest. 

Though it varies slightly from person to person, the general sequence is pretty much the same for everyone: 

  • Wake up: Slight grogginess (what the science community calls sleep inertia) for up to 90 minutes after waking
  • Morning peak: Feeling more alert, focused, and energetic
  • Midday dip: Energy decreases in the early afternoon
  • Evening peak: A second wind, more energy and focus
  • Wind-down: Feeling less alert, sleep pressure builds
  • Melatonin Window: The recommended time to go to bed, as it’s the time of night when your brain produces its highest levels of the sleep hormone melatonin 

Studies show that the midday dip is the ideal time to take a nap. (On the RISE app's energy screen, you'll see the exact times for the beginning and the end of your dip.) By following your body’s natural energy schedule, you’ll likely fall asleep more easily. 

By contrast, napping too long (for more than 90 minutes, roughly the time of a full sleep cycle) or later in the day closer to your bedtime or Melatonin Window can pose a risk to your ability to get a good night’s sleep. If you don’t have that build-up of sleep pressure when bedtime rolls around, you may find it harder to fall asleep. 

And that’s the potential danger of napping. If you sleep too much during the day, you may get caught in a vicious cycle of daytime sleepiness and nighttime wakefulness. So remember to prioritize the sleep you get at night over sleeping during the day. To preserve your body's natural sleep-wake cycle, the bulk of your sleep debt should be repaid at night, leaving naps with a more supplemental role. 

Napping Can Have Real Cognitive and Performance Benefits

A smiling woman works on her laptop

Naps can do more than simply help compensate for sleep loss. Taking the occasional afternoon siesta can improve mood, memory, performance, and creative problem solving: 

  • Mood: After a nap, you might be more likely to exhibit feelings of relaxation and joy than you did before you caught those extra z’s.   
  • Memory: According to James Maas, the Cornell social psychologist and sleep expert who coined the term "power nap,” when you’re extremely tired your brain has a tendency to “turn off” its memory neurons. Even though you’re technically awake, your brain is pretty much offline. A nap can reverse the shut-down, allowing the neurons to light back up to restore memory function.
  • Performance: Naps can raise alertness by 54%. According to studies conducted by NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, pilots who napped showed higher physiological alertness and performance, as compared to pilots who did not nap. 
  • Creative problem solving: An hour-long nap that puts you into REM sleep can improve creative problem solving abilities by 40%. (But it’s best not to nap for longer than 90 minutes. You want to avoid making it harder for yourself to fall asleep at night.)

Exactly What Kind of Nap Do You Need Most? 

Sleeping during the day: A man naps on a couch

So, you want to take a nap? What kind of nap would you like? Sleep scientists David Dinges and Roger Broughton created three distinct categories of daytime sleeping.

Replacement Napping: To Make Up Sleep Debt

If sleep loss has you deep in "debt," this kind of nap can help you chip away at that sleep debt. Even a 15-minute replacement nap can help lessen the negative effects of sleep deprivation.

Prophylactic Napping: To Preempt Sleep Debt

Think of these naps as a kind of nest egg or safety net to prevent anticipated sleep debt. Prophylactic naps are especially popular with shift workers whose sleep habits are dictated by job schedules and shift work that are often at odds with a natural circadian rhythm. If you're on the night shift, a nap before work allows you to bank some alertness for later in the evening.

Appetitive Napping: For Performance and Enjoyment

Sometimes you just want to take a nap for a little mental pick-me-up. Because even if you’re very well rested, the occasional well-placed nap can give you extra energy for whatever challenges the rest of the day may hold. 

Create a Nap-Friendly Environment

No matter what kind of nap you take, creating a sleep-friendly environment can make it easier to sleep during the day. Although a cool, dark, and quiet place is ideal, daytime conditions might make that difficult to find. You may be able to create some semblance of those conditions using earplugs, an eye mask, and a white-noise app on your phone.

Learning to Be OK With Sleeping During the Day 

A woman naps outside in the grass

We all have busy lives that don’t always jibe with our intended bedtimes and sleep schedules. And though it’s best to make up for lost sleep at night, you can learn to use strategic napping as another tool to help chip away at your sleep debt. The RISE app can help you find the best time to nap and chart your progress toward your overall sleep and energy goals.

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RISE makes it easy to improve your sleep and daily energy to reach your potential

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