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To Nap or Not to Nap

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

Did you know that JFK ate lunch in bed each day so he could take a nap immediately afterward? He did. (Reagan, Edison, and Churchill are other famous nappers.)

Naps aren’t just for toddlers at pre-school. An afternoon nap is great for adults too!

In Europe and Latin America, daytime naps are part of people’s everyday lives, but this is less true in the United States. Even so, a short, well-timed nap has been shown to improve mental performance, combat daytime sleepiness, and elevate mood.

I think of napping like plugging in your phone for 15 minutes when the power charge is low.

Many studies show that 10-20 minutes is optimal, though for some people, a nap of 90 minutes or so works, which allows for one complete sleep cycle. Naps that fall in between produce sleep inertia and can make you confused and groggy, although the benefits may still occur once the post-nap alertness returns.

Timing is important, too. Most benefits seem to come from taking a nap in the early- to mid-afternoon, when alertness dips. Taking a nap after 5 pm can result in prolonged sleep inertia and is likely to interfere with your ability to fall asleep later that night.

6 Tips for Taking a Great Nap

There are numerous ways to take a perfect nap! Here are six tips that will get you to your perfect nap.

  1. Keep it short. Shoot for a nap that is on the shorter side. As mentioned above, 10-20 minutes is ideal for many. It’s also been shown that 20-30 minutes is just long enough to get a bit of energizing sleep, without the risk of being plunged into the slow-wave sleep that can make you groggy. For some, a 90-minute nap is considered the “perfect” length, as that is the length of a full sleep cycle.

  2. Don’t nap too late in the day. Improperly timed naps can interfere with your nighttime sleep, experts say. Don’t sleep too long or too late in the day, especially if you have trouble falling asleep at night. For many, the ideal time for a nap is between 1-3 pm. Individual factors, such as your need for sleep, your sleeping schedule, your age, and your medication use, can also help determine the best time of day to nap. And, as mentioned above, try not to nap after 5 pm.

  3. Set an alarm. To make sure you don’t sleep too long, be sure to set an alarm.

  4. Yes, that sounds corny, but it’s essential to have a restful environment. Your ideal place will be quiet, dark, have a comfortable temperature, and few or no distractions. If you’re not able to be in your ideal place, consider putting together a “nap kit,” similar to what you might travel with. A sleep mask, ear plugs, and a neck pillow will make almost any place a “nappy” place.

  5. Take a caffeine nap. I know this sounds counterintuitive but consider this. Caffeine takes 20-45 minutes to kick in. If you consume your favorite caffeinated beverage just before you lie down, it will kick in right around the time you wake up from your 20-30-minute nap. Many times, you’ll wake up naturally, feel refreshed, and be more awake than without the caffeine. Still unsure? Here’s some science: A 2003 Japanese study found that caffeine naps were more effective at combating daytime sleepiness than noncaffeine naps. Just be careful not to do this too late in the day, otherwise, it could interfere with your ability to sleep at night.

  6. Practice makes perfect. You can train yourself to become better at napping. Regular nappers report that it gets easier the more you do it. Once your brain and body get in the habit, you’ll learn to drift off quickly and even wake up at the perfect time without an alarm.

After napping, be sure to give yourself time to wake up before resuming activities—particularly those that require a quick or sharp response.

To learn more about how living in your purpose can increase your longevity, order your copy of my latest bestseller, 30 Summers More from Amazon today. All proceeds go to the American Diabetes Association. 

Not a Cure for Poor Sleep

Napping can be an energy and clarity boost, but it’s not a cure for poor sleep.

Don’t kid yourself: You can’t easily make up for lost sleep. Yes, you might still be able to pull off an occasional all-nighter at 50, 60, or even 70 to get you through a big deadline or marathon trip. But you know how long it takes to recover from jet lag. Imagine doing that to your body regularly.

Charles Czeisler, Ph.D., MD, FRCP, professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, insists, “You can’t catch up on lost sleep,” which he calls “sleep debt.” If you occasionally miss a few hours of sleep during the week and catch up by sleeping in on the weekend, you have a low amount of sleep debt. You may be able to repay that debt with a few hours of extra sleep on Saturday morning, but you will also be shifting your circadian rhythm, making it difficult to fall asleep on Sunday night and causing stress on your body as it works harder to find its right sleep-wake cycle.

“If you consistently miss a few hours’ sleep each night for days or weeks on end, the accumulated sleep debt is as harmful as skipping an entire night of sleep,” Dr. Czeisler explains. “Not only will it be physically impossible to catch up on the missing sleep, some evidence suggests that you may actually be permanently damaging your brain or causing other health problems that reduce longevity.” Rather than think about how much sleep we can do without, we need to think of sleep as a vital sign that tells us about our well-being.

If you’re experiencing an increased need for naps and there’s no obvious cause of new fatigue in your life, talk to your doctor. You could be taking a medication or have a sleep disorder or other medical condition that’s disrupting your nighttime sleep.

Otherwise, if you feel the need for a brief pick-me-up in the afternoon, a nap is much better for you than an unhealthy energy drink or coffee alone.

Want more information on how to get the great sleep that increases your longevity? Pick up a copy of my bestseller, 30 Summers More, where you’ll find in-depth info on sleep and other health tips to live your best—and healthiest—life.

In my next blog, I’ll discuss the first of two common sleep disorders: Sleep Apnea. Until then, Wellness Warriors, Live Well, Live Long!


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