Napping is only natural. In fact, it’s more unnatural not to nap, as 85 percent of mammals sleep periodically throughout the day (that’s called “polyphasic sleep”) as opposed to splitting the day into two parts—one for sleeping, one for wakefulness (that’s called “monophasic sleep”).
When considering whether or not our drive to nap is innate, we might take a cue from the nap-loving younger and older members of our species: Babies and the elderly regularly nap.
Furthermore, many politicians, scientists, athletes and artists famously closed their eyes to reset in the middle of the day, including Albert Einstein, Margaret Thatcher, Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Thomas Edison, Muhammed Ali, and the list goes on.
The afternoon siesta or riposa is a cultural norm in Spain, Italy and China. In some countries, businesses shut down in the middle of the day so employees can retreat home for a nap; in others, shut-eye is taken right at the desk. Companies in the U.S. are generally less nap-friendly, but the tide may be turning on that front. Some progressive employers—including big names like Google, Uber, Ben and Jerry’s, Huffington Post, Mercedes-Benz and NASA—now provide nap rooms or nap pods for workers. Colleges, too, are more often providing dedicated nap rooms for students.
Benefits of napping
Now that we’re aware that all the cool kids take naps, let’s dig into the matter of whether or not naps are worth taking.
Numerous studies have determined that napping leads to behavioral and mood improvements. Though each study monitored different participants in different circumstances, the results generally showed that those who napped experienced improved vigilance, emotional regulation, logical reasoning, memory and reaction time.
When a University of Michigan study monitored the effect of a 60-minute midday nap, it found those who had awoken from one were less impulsive and had greater tolerance for frustration as opposed to the comparison group, which watched a 60-minute nature documentary instead.
“Frustration tolerance is one facet of emotion regulation,” says one of the study’s researchers, Jennifer Goldschmied. “I suspect sleeping gives us more distance [from an emotional event] — it’s not just about the passing of time.”
In a University of California, Riverside, study, another group of researchers compared the effect of a midday nap to the effect of a 200mg dose of caffeine (about a cup of coffee’s worth). Both improved participants’ perceptual learning about the same. However, those who napped also demonstrated better memory during a verbal word-recall test.
Of course, a nap is no replacement for logging the Mayo Clinic’s recommended 7 to 9 hours of shut eye each night.
As the National Sleep Foundation says, “Think of a nap like a jumpstart for a car battery that is low on power. It won’t last forever, but it can provide enough of a boost to get you back on the road until you can take your machine into the shop.”
Are there downfalls to napping?
Anyone who has taken a long nap knows about sleep inertia—that grogginess that you can’t seem to shake for the rest of the day—even if you didn’t know that was the name for it.
While simply taking shorter naps might remedy this, it’s also been found that some people are just “better nappers” than others. Forty percent of the population is considered “habitual nappers,” meaning they regularly take an afternoon snooze. This cohort usually doesn’t fall into a deep sleep during their naps, so are less likely to wake feeling out of it. The other 60 percent of people, in the meantime, may determine that a nap isn’t worth the disoriented way they feel afterwards.
Others will find that napping during the day, especially if the nap is long or taken late in the day, has a negative impact on their sleep quality that night.
Excessive napping may also indicate an underlying health condition, as habitual nappers have shown an increased cardiovascular mortality and appear to be more likely to suffer from sleep disorders.
The recipe for the perfect nap
So what’s the perfect nap like?
According to experts, it occurs at some point between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.—or about six to eight hours after you’ve woken.
And shorter naps are best, so set your alarm. One study pinpointed a 10-minute nap as the most beneficial, as it avoids the pitfalls of sleep inertia that can accompany even a 20-minute nap. The National Sleep Foundation also recommends shorter naps that range in duration from 20 minutes to 40 minutes to improve alertness and performance without ruining your day.
As far as the ideal environment for napping, doctors say there is no better place than your own bed, but if that’s not an option, get as horizontal as you can wherever you are.
It’s also important to block out as much light as you can. Some are more sensitive to light than others and may benefit from a sleep mask, while others can simply draw the blinds shut. And cut down on sounds while you’re at it, as loud noises can disturb your sleep even if you don’t realize they have. Ear plugs and white noise machines can help with that.
And does practice make perfect when it comes to napping?
One would assume so. But when sleep researcher Elizabeth McDevitt studied a group of people who rarely or never nap and had them nap every day for four weeks, she found no changes in their performance or brain activity during sleep after four weeks of naps. When comparing these results to the results of regular nappers, she concluded that the effect of a nap on a person may have to do with their genetics.
So if napping isn’t your thing, that’s OK. And if it is your thing, that’s probably because it’s doing your body good.