By Greg Potter, PhD
Most of us intuitively understand that a well-timed nap is sometimes exactly what the doctor ordered – you can probably think of a time when a short nap has seemingly transformed your day after a night of poor sleep.
Many of us have therefore been perplexed by occasional media reports that napping is in fact bad for us. For example, when scientists have looked at all of the research that has asked people about their napping habits and then tracked their health over time, they’ve found that people who take long naps tend to be more likely to die from any cause, an association that might be stronger in women and the elderly.
It seems we should avoid napping then, right?
Publication of these types of studies sometimes leads bloggers and journalists to then eschew napping, ingraining the notion that napping is not just a lazy behaviour but a counterproductive one too.
There’s more to the story though: When one looks more closely at the research it becomes clear that judicious use of napping can be not only performance enhancing, it can be healthy too.
The nap paradox
This association between napping and disease in cross-sectional studies is generally thought to reflect the fact that numerous disorders and diseases (especially those characterised by chronic inflammation) both increase daytime sleepiness and also increase risk of future disease complications and ultimately mortality. So, this association between napping and morbidity does not mean that napping causes health problems – instead, it means that certain health problems increase napping propensity.
Importantly, and somewhat paradoxically, rigorous science actually shows that smart napping can help us in numerous ways, making naps a potential and powerful “public health tool“.
The many benefits of napping
Research on people napping in scientific laboratories has repeatedly shown that taking short naps confers all sorts of benefits, boosting alertness, helping consolidate memories, improving one’s ability to subsequently learn new things, boosting mood and how well people regulate their emotions, enhancing immune function, normalising pain sensitivity, bolstering cardiovascular function, and supporting exercise performance. It’s therefore no surprise that strategic use of napping can be critical to performance, safety and wellbeing.
It’s probably also no surprise that having a nap is most beneficial when your sleep has been disrupted (because you regularly cut short your overnight sleep with an alarm clock, for example). So, think of naps as one way to ensure you’re getting enough total sleep in each 24-h day.
I do want to make it clear that napping is not for everyone though.
In rare instances napping can be problematic. For example, someone experiencing chronic insomnia should probably forego napping unless napping is acutely essential to safety, for napping could impair the person’s ability to fall and stay asleep.
How to get the many benefits of napping
Based on my interpretation of the research on napping (I studied sleep for my PhD) and my experience helping people sleep better, I think there’s a very strong chance you’ll benefit from learning to use naps effectively. I don’t want to leave you hanging though. So, for more on how to optimise your napping, check out the resources at ProNappers!
Anyway, it’s lunchtime, so I’m off for a nap 😉
Chief Science Officer, Resilient Nutrition