For the Love of Napping

Why a Mid-Day Rest Does a Body Good

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More and more researchers are coming to an important conclusion about our sleep patterns: napping, it turns out, may be in our DNA.

That’s good news for many of us who are already dedicated nappers. Dividing sleep in a day’s cycle is called bi-phasal sleeping, and it makes sense when you think about it. No other mammals try to get all of their required sleep in one extended period, and then stay awake continuously for the second part of the day. Our most logical assumptions about ancient humans suggest that rest periods needed to be divided, even staggered, for the safety of the family group or tribe. Even today, in modern hunter-gatherer societies, there is usually time set aside in the middle of the day for rest. Before the advent of industrialization and the contemporary workday, this mid-day rest period was standard, and it is still maintained in some cultures. In fact, the word siesta derives from the Latin sexta, designating the sixth hour of the day, or noon, which was—and still is in many places—set aside for the day’s largest meal followed by a period of rest of which napping has frequently been an important part.

The typical sleepiness most of us feel after lunch has often been attributed to the meal itself. It was assumed that eating slowed people down and made them feel lethargic. Yet research shows that those who do not eat around noon, or else eat small meals at midday, still tend to have a dip in energy in the early afternoon, usually between 2:00 and 4:00PM. New evidence indicates that this lull is natural and part of our circadian rhythms—the pattern that our days take according to our awakeness and productivity versus our need for rest and recovery.

And recovery is important. Sleep science, including studies of napping, has brought new awareness to just how critical sleep is to our bodily and mental health. While many of us can easily get on board with a good night’s sleep, it can prove more difficult to admit the importance of a nap. In our society today, there is still a stigma of laziness attached to nappers. It should be acknowledged that this is likely what almost every human would do if afforded the luxury of sitting still in the early afternoon. Even as we age and we have time to give into our body’s sleep rhythms, many of us feel guilty about napping.

With the many benefits of napping, there are nevertheless some cautions we should be aware of, as well as instructions on how to nap most effectively.
Napping may be counter-productive if it interferes with nighttime sleeping, either falling asleep or staying asleep. If you find yourself unusually tired or uncharacteristically fatigued, there may be larger issues for a doctor to address. Importantly, one study has linked napping with increased risk of heart failure in people already at risk.

Most experts recommend that we nap in the early afternoon, sometime around 2:00 to 3:00 PM. However, this depends also on how long one has already been awake. Early risers can adjust accordingly, and vice versa. We should always take into consideration at what time we naturally tend to feel sleepier. Moreover, naps should be 10 minutes to around 40 minutes long, with 20–30 minutes designated as the perfect amount for most people. Anything longer can result in what is called sleep inertia, which is that grogginess we experience after a nap that can seemingly last for the rest of the afternoon. Though some grogginess is expected upon waking from a nap, we should be clear-headed and alert within a few minutes to a half hour after waking.

There are a number of things that can be done in order to facilitate falling asleep quickly and waking up easily within the designated time. Making a regular time for a nap in your schedule helps the body establish a recognizable rhythm. Finding a comfortable, cool, and darkened space may help you to relax. A mental relaxation exercise or 5-minute meditation may quiet the mind, allowing your body to relax into sleep. Resources including audio recordings are abundantly available online and in libraries and bookstores. Setting a timer lets you know when it’s time to get up. From there, it may be a matter of conditioning yourself, which may take practice.

So, go ahead and nap! And know you are in good company. Some of the greatest minds in history were nappers. Leonardo da Vinci took multiple naps a day to make up for less sleep at night. Albert Einstein, by contrast, slept 10 hours a night and took a daily nap. Though embarrassed by his need for naps, Thomas Edison did so every day, and John F. Kennedy took his lunch in bed followed by a nap every day. Others who jealously guarded their daily naps include Napoleon, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, and John D. Rockefeller.