To nap or not to nap?

napThe alarm clock on my nightstand fills the room with its morning siren. Sleep time is now over. And because my son is battling an ear infection and my daughter had a nightmare, my night seemed even shorter than my snoring husband’s.

But I am not alone in my sleep deprivation. It seems that the US is leading the world in lack of sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Most people break their day into two sections: one for wakefulness and one for sleep, with the wakefulness taking the larger half. But in many countries around the world, and in the animal kingdom, naps are a part of life.

Some studies have suggested that taking a short 20 to 30 minute nap could help improve productivity, mood and alertness. Great leaders like John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Albert Einstein were said to be nappers. So, why isn’t napping a normal practice in the US?

Scott & White Pulmonologist and sleep expert, Christopher D. Spradley, MD, FCCP, said that napping can be beneficial, but it also has some negatives.

Why do we feel the need to nap?

There are four reasons why humans feel the need to doze off in the middle of the day.

  1. The person did not get adequate sleep—less than seven and a half hours—during the night.
  2. Just like a sleep cycle, humans have an energy cycle that goes through periods of heightened energy and periods of low energy throughout the day. This natural circadian rhythm can make individuals feel increased sleepiness in the early afternoon.
  3. If you eat a meal with a large amount of carbohydrates, it can make you feel drowsy and sluggish.
  4. Just one of these reasons will make you feel sleepy on its own, but if you combine any of them, you might be dozing off before you finish your lunch.

When can a nap be beneficial?

While many Americans don’t have the opportunity to take a nap during the day, those who do might be increasing their productivity and alertness.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, a study at NASA conducted on sleepy military pilots and astronauts found that if the men and women took a short nap, their performance improved by 34 percent and their alertness by 100 percent.

Napping has also been linked to psychological benefits, including improved mood. Taking a few minutes to rest and relax can make a person feel rejuvenated and refreshed without having to book a vacation.

“Napping is usually frowned upon by the sleep community because it can disrupt the sleep/wake cycle,” Dr. Spradley said. “However, when used in instances where nocturnal sleep is necessarily deprived, naps may be beneficial. There are a few small studies that support the use of an afternoon nap n the workplace.”

What are the negative effects of napping?

“A nap can be detrimental to someone if their nap is too long,” the doctor said. “It can cause difficulty when they attempt to sleep at night.”

If a nap goes on too long and the person enters a deep sleep, they might feel worse when they awaken from this state of slumber. That feeling of grogginess and disorientation that comes with awakening from a deep sleep is called sleep inertia, and it could make you feel worse than when you fell asleep.

How can someone nap successfully?

Napping may not be necessary if the person can attain adequate nocturnal sleep. But if the sleepy person feels the need to nap, they should do so in a cool, dark environment free of distractions, Dr. Spradley said.

About the author

Jessa McClure
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Jessa McClure holds a degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, TX, where she is currently an adviser for student publications. She has been a writer in the health care field since 2009.

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To nap or not to nap?