NAP: Should I? should I not?

Napoleon Bonaparte napped; Albert Einstein napped; even Winston Churchill napped. There surely must be some worth in these mid-day siestas.

Man taking a nap while working

How do we explain naps and siestas? The best explanation we have at this time involves the relationship between sleep pressure and circadian rhythms. Sleep pressure starts to build when we wake up. Assuming we wake up in the early- to mid-morning, it will reach a fairly high level by early afternoon, roughly halfway through the waking day. Meanwhile, the morning burst of cortisol has worn off and the rise in core body temperature, another wakefulness signal, is only starting the gradual ascent toward its peak in the second half of the day. [It may even go through a small dip at this time of day.]

The drive to sleep is strong enough to override the drive to stay awake and the result is that napping becomes a possibility. Food can be an added pro-nap factor. Eating a large or heavy meal at lunchtime causes an insulin response that leads to a temporary drop in blood glucose. This, in turn, promotes drowsiness. However, the primary reason that siestas are both attractive and possible is clearly circadian. Even someone who skips lunch can end up wanting a nap because of accumulated sleep pressure combined with low levels of wakefulness signals.

The pros of napping

Is taking a siesta a good idea? Quite a lot of people have thought so, including Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Winston Churchill. And lab studies back them up. After a nap, people are more alert and productive, less tired, and more positive in their mood. Their logical reasoning and decision-making skills improve, and if they have been learning something new or practising a new skill, they retain it better after a nap. There is even research suggesting that regular napping reduces the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and obesity. What’s not to like?

It turns out that alertness and cognitive skills improve after as little as 10 minutes of napping

The cons of napping

Still, some cautions are in order. It matters when we nap and how long we nap. Studies in which people were encouraged to take naps at different times of day confirm what most of us probably already suspect. For adults with a normal sleep-wake pattern, the best time to nap is in the early afternoon, about halfway between morning wake-up time and evening bedtime.

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Napping later in the day, however, may have an unfortunate impact in the evening or night. Naps deplete sleep pressure, and the later that happens, the less time there is for sleep pressure to build up again by bedtime. Sleep pressure and the circadian cycle have gotten temporarily out of sync, and until they get back in harmony, you will have trouble falling asleep.

How long a nap is best?

Researchers have also studied the effects of varying the length of naps. Surprisingly, it turns out that alertness and cognitive skills improve after as little as 10 minutes of napping. That is enough time to relieve fatigue, too. Naps of 20 minutes or half an hour do not provide any greater benefits, and they are also more likely to set off a period of grogginess or sleep inertia. Those who take longer naps, of an hour or more, build up even more sleep inertia. There may be other gains from their deeper sleep, such as more creative problem solving, but it takes them even more time to return to full alertness and effectiveness.

Excerpted from Reset Your Inner Clock: The Drug-Free Way to Your Best-Ever Sleep, Mood, and Energy by Michael Terman, PhD and Ian McMahan, PhD. Published by Avery. Used with permission.

This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Michael Terman
Dr Michael Terman, PhD, professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry at Columbia University, directs the Comprehensive Chronotherapy Group. He conducted key research on circadian rhythms. Later, he investigated the antidepressant effects of light therapy, now a recognised treatment.
Ian McMahan
Dr Ian McMahan, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Brooklyn College, CUNY. He is a member of PEN American Center and the PEN Freedom to Write Committee, and his favourite hobby is exploring the back roads and country lanes of Southern France.


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