When I confessed that I take the occasional afternoon nap, sleep medicine specialist Kim Hutchison, M.D., sweetly scolded me for seeming apologetic about it.
“We need to show a healthy respect for the importance of sleep,” said the Oregon Health & Science University neurologist and sleep doctor, while sharing the latest thinking on daytime dozing.
“I am actively working against the part of our culture that considers people who nap lazy,” she said. “That’s not good for our health and well-being.”
But is an afternoon nap always the right answer for daytime fatigue? Hutchison said she supports the right nap, in the right place, at the right time.
“The data on napping is kind of mixed,” she said.
People do seem happier — at least anecdotally — where the traditional local culture includes an afternoon siesta, she said.
“Where that comes from is, we have something called a circadian rhythm — that’s your body clock,” she said. While it’s largely connected to cycles of light and darkness, she said, it’s not quite that simple.
“It has ups and downs during the 24-hour cycle, including a dip in the afternoon,” she said.
That afternoon dip in energy and wakefulness — often following the midday meal — can be especially acute as one ages.
Naps can be a tremendous boon to your wakefulness, effectiveness and cheerfulness, Hutchison said. Just be careful about substituting a nap habit for the nighttime sleep you’re missing.
If nighttime sleep isn’t a problem for you, then there’s no problem taking a brief afternoon snooze as well.
“Sometimes a power nap can be beneficial, even if you’re getting enough sleep,” she said. “As we age, it’s just harder to keep going on all cylinders, all day. You just need more of a power boost in the afternoon.”
Just keep your nap short and relatively early in the day. Hutchison likes the idea of a 20- or 30-minute nap, sometime between 1 and 3 p.m. Use an alarm if you must.
“A nap of half an hour or less can give you a boost in memory, productivity and mood,” she said.
Not the same
Napping too late or too long could interfere with your body’s need for nighttime sleep, she said. Napping for as long as an hour or two and waking up feeling groggy (that’s called sleep inertia) is also associated with health problems in the long term, she said.
“If you’re finding that napping creates problems at night, then — as part of good sleep hygiene — I would eliminate the nap,” she said.
Don’t nap in your nighttime bed and bedroom, Hutchison suggested, since that space is (or should be) associated in your mind with lengthy, overnight sleep. Go for an alternative like a cot or couch: still comfy, but not too comfy.
If you are struggling with insomnia, she said, avoid napping and see your doctor.
“Napping isn’t a replacement,” she said. “It’s not a good habit to get into if you’re not getting adequate sleep.”
Recovery and risk
Hutchison emphasized that she’s an unabashed warrior for a good night’s sleep. The general recommendation that adults get approximately eight hours of nightly sleep remains a good one, she said.
“That’s a little bit variable, but it’s the amount that works for you,” she said. “The amount where you wake up naturally, on your own, feeling refreshed and able to function well during the day.”
It’s true that many people’s brains, when faced with random episodes of sleep deprivation, can respond by maximizing efficiency when able to indulge again, Hutchison said. If you miss a few hours over a night or two and then recoup with a longer “recovery sleep,” she said, your brain will spend longer than normal in what’s called slow-wave (nondreaming) sleep — a vital period for memory and learning consolidation.
“It will try to catch up by filling those buckets first,” Hutchison said.
In the meantime, however, you’ll be more prone to misjudgments, bad moods, risky behaviors — and an inability to see those things clearly. (Your spouse, co-workers and others nearby, on the other hand, will be acutely aware.)
“You may think you’re more productive, but your checks and balances are lower,” Hutchison said. “When you’re sleep deprived, you’re less likely to recognize mistakes. It’s like alcohol tricking your brain into thinking you’re fine when you’re really impaired.”
Over the longer term, chronic sleep deprivation can lead to a host of health problems, from cardiovascular disease to dementia to simple accidents, she said. Sleep study subjects who’ve missed just one night of sleep drive as if they’re mildly drunk.
“When you are really sleep deprived and really pushing yourself, the part of your brain that’s impaired is the part responsible for insight and judgments,” Hutchison said. “You can still ride a bike but the part of your brain that tells you whether to make this turn is impaired. That’s dangerous.”
Trying the opposite
What’s the opposite of a nap? Exercise.
If you are feeling nappy but want to save up your sleep need for nighttime, push through with motion and light.
“When you are feeling that circadian dip, you can be more active,” Hutchison said. “If you are experiencing problems with insomnia and feel like napping during the day … change your posture. Expose yourself to sunlight. Go on a brisk walk to give yourself a boost of wakefulness.”
Speaking of opposites: Some progressive employers are trying the opposite too, Hutchison noted, by endorsing, encouraging and even setting aside space for employees’ afternoon naps.
“Employers end up ahead when they recognize that napping can be beneficial,” she said. “It increases overall job satisfaction. The flip side is, employees need to be responsible about napping.
“Certainly with the COVID epidemic and work-from-home … shutting down for 20 minutes and taking a nap is much more doable now.”