Are naps a good idea or to be avoided at all costs?

Naps can be a great way of catching up on if people are having trouble sleeping, one of the first things they are told is to avoid napping. So what should you do? Are naps a good idea after all, or just going to cause you problems in the long run? Most mammals sleep in multiple periods throughout the day rather than just sleeping at night. Are humans different?

There are naps and then there are sleeps

In talking about naps, I’m generally referring to a short period of sleep during the day, rather than going back to bed for hours and having a long sleep. There isn’t a clear definition that draws a line between what is a nap and what is a daytime sleep. At each extreme they’re easy to separate – a 5 minute nap in a chair versus going back to bed and sleeping all afternoon. But in between the difference is often not clear. Most of the research on napping looks at short sleeps, of less than an hour, and their effect on health and performance. The term ‘power nap’ is also used to describe naps of up to 30 minutes.

As a rough guide think about naps as being:

  • Nap – sleep during the day of up to 1 hour
  • Power nap – short nap with the aim of improving performance of up to 30 minutes
  • Daytime sleep – sleep during the day of over an hour

Naps will kill you. Right?

Results like the ones seen in this study often get picked up in the general media. It sounds frightening, people who nap are 19% more likely to die from a heart attack than those who don’t. A similar article was a picked up by the Daily Mail who generated this alarming story titled ‘ afternoon nap raises the risk of an EARLY DEATH by a third.’ But taking a more careful look at the study shows that people who were napping were sicker than those who weren’t napping. In the study quoted by the Daily Mail, it seems that people who already had serious lung problems napped more as they were tired from their illness. Likewise in the study on heart attacks it was most likely that people with existing heart problems were more likely to nap because they were sick from their heart problems.

Naps, and sleep, are not valued in modern society despite research showing their benefits

Most Western cultures have long traditions of seeing napping as a form of laziness. This means many of us have been brought up seeing the need to nap as a sign of weakness, and something to be avoided. If you’re feeling tired, you’re just not keeping up. Have a coffee or energy drink and power on. However, research over the last 20 years has shown that naps:

  • Improve energy levels and performance
  • Allow people to catch up on lost sleep
  • Improve metabolism in people who are sleep deprived
  • Reduce the risk of falling asleep at the wheel

On the basis of this research, groups such as the Traffic Accident Commission in Victoria have built whole campaigns around using power naps to manage fatigue and reduce fatigue related accidents.  Companies such as Huffington Post and Cisco have installed nap pods in offices so employees can nap, in recognition of the improved performance and creativity after naps.

Using naps to manage sleep disorders

For people with narcolepsy, regular and planned use of naps is a key strategy for managing symptoms of tiredness. Without naps, people with narcolepsy can have trouble staying awake throughout the day, finding they fall asleep unexpectedly. Napping reduces this ‘sleep pressure’ and helps make medication more effective at controlling narcolepsy symptoms.

For people work shift-work sleep can be hard to come by, and they are often sleep-deprived. Using naps is a great strategy for them to both catch up on lost sleep as well as reduce symptoms of sleepiness during shifts.

Are there times when I should avoid napping?

About the only time I’ll recommend people avoid naps is when they are having trouble with sleep at night. If people are having trouble sleeping at night, they can get in to a viscous cycle of then trying to catch up on sleep during the day. This in turn reduces the amount of sleep they have at night. An effective treatment to break this cycle is to stop people regularly napping, as it makes them more tired at night, and helps with both getting to sleep and staying asleep. But, even in this situation I think there is a role for ‘power naps’ which can be used if people are struggling with symptoms of sleep deprivation. The key is to keep naps relatively short, less than 30 minutes, and only use them to reduce sleepiness that is impacting on performance during the day.

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