Is it normal for us to nap?
Or were humans only meant to rest and slumber at night? Compared to other animals, we are not as stealthy in the dark: we have poor vision and hearing, and have two feet (making it more likely for us to trip than our fellow four-legged friends). But how do we explain that many children, elderly people, and some cultures take naps? In other words, we do not know if napping is normal. What we do know is that there are likely individual, cultural, and Darwinian factors that play a roll in our sleep cycle.
Are all naps created equally?
No. Habitual napping—taking a nap at the same time each day—is what we see in children, elderly people, and some cultures. Emergency napping describes catching some ZZZ’s when we have not gotten a good night’s sleep. We may also do this when we cannot continue with an activity we are engaging in, such as completing a work project, studying for a
test, or driving.
Preparatory or planned napping is taking a nap even though we may not be sleepy but expect to stay up later than our normal bedtime. It is like banking our sleep; instead of putting away money for a rainy day, we are stashing away some ZZZ’s in anticipation of a late night.
What are the benefits of “pausing” horizontally?
Surprisingly, it depends on the duration of the nap. For example, snoozing for 10-20 minutes (a.k.a. a power nap) helps boost alertness and energy. On the other hand, sleeping for 30 minutes can result in a sleep “hangover,” or sleep inertia, where we remain sleepy for 30 minutes before we experience the benefits of our slumber. If we want to boost our ability to remember facts, names, and details, as well as sharpen our decision-making skills, consider napping for 60 minutes.
And shut-eye for 90 minutes allows for us to enter a deep stage of sleep called rapid eye movement (REM). Entering into REM helps improve memory and make new connections in the brain that can assist with creativity and problem-solving.
If it’s so wonderful, why aren’t we all doing it?
Before we jump onto the comfy, cozy recliner to nap, consider some of the potential drawbacks. First of all, many of us have difficulty napping during the day or sleeping anywhere but in our beds.
Additionally, napping may result in sleep inertia where we feel groggy or disoriented when we wake up. This can be a problem when we need to be alert and focused immediately. And for those of us who suffer from sleep disturbances—that’s 70 million Americans—napping may contribute to, or worsen, the problem. This is especially the case when we take
long naps or nap too late in the day.
How can I get my nap on?
Although individuals vary, some helpful tips include keeping it short, quiet, temperate, dark, and early. A 20-30 minute nap can help avoid sleep inertia. A quiet, comfortable temperature, and dim environment can help us transition into la-la land. The best time to nap is usually mid-afternoon when our bodies experience a wave of sleepiness.
Napping later in the day can interfere with nighttime sleep.
“Many of us dream of traveling to the future or visiting the past. But in the end most time machines would just be used for naps.” And I wish I could go back in time to take all of those naps I worked to avoid… thinking I might miss something! I have discovered what I was missing—the benefits of sleep!
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Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist and a member of the AmericanSociety of Anesthesiologists where she serves on committees for Young Physicians and Communications. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition,
and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.