- I don’t generally feel anything until noon; then it’s time for my nap.
- Bob Hope
Sometimes you just can’t help it. You may be in an important meeting, or driving, or watching a football game. Suddenly your eyes become heavy. You feel warm and a little light headed. You notice that you’re having trouble concentrating. Then the head begins to bob, and before you know it you are nodding off. You’ve just been nap-attacked!
The public opinion about napping has varied over time and from culture to culture. Some societies, particularly those in warmer climates, have celebrated napping and even schedule afternoon ‘siestas’ into the regular work day. In most office environments taking a nap during work, especially in meetings, is usually frowned upon.
If you feel the urge to sleep in the middle of the day what should you do? Should you fight the urge and try to work through it? Should you load up on caffeine? Should you switch activities to try to keep the mind and body awake? Or should you give into the nap?
What Are Naps?
Usually the term ‘nap’, or ‘napping’ is used to describe any sleep that takes place apart from a main nocturnal session of sleep. It could be morning, noon or evening as long as it is not connected to the main nighttime sleep.
For the sake of considering whether we should nap or not, you can consider a nap to be any secondary sleep that you would take in addition to your main session of sleep.
Why Do We Take Naps?
There are two biological governors that dictate our sleep cycles. They are our circadian sleep rhythm, and our homeostatic sleep mechanism. You can learn more about these in another article on this site. Briefly, however, we have a number of circadian rhythms, as all living things do. A circadian rhythm is a 24-hour biological clock that governs some system of our physical, psychological or behavioral selves.
The sleep cycle is a 24 hour clock that causes sleepiness to peak between 2-6 AM, which helps us to stay asleep at night. But, there is a second, smaller peak that occurs 12 hours later, from about 2-3 PM in most people. This is why we so often experience a post-lunch let down. It is not because of having eaten a heavy lunch, though this can contribute to the problem. Rather it is part of our body’s natural sleep rhythm. So, you might say that it is perfectly human to take an afternoon nap. We can become sleepy, sometimes overwhelmingly so, and often there is nothing we can do about it except wait it out.
Feeling sleepy in the afternoons is not an indicator that you are lazy. Lazy people are often wide awake in the afternoons, though they may be frittering their time away on some pointless pursuit. Mid-day sleepiness is an indication of sleep deprivation. This could be a result of staying up too late or of some sleep disorder such as insomnia or sleep apnea. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Listen to your body and figure out a way to give it the rest it needs.
Pros and Cons of Napping
The objectives in napping should be to recharge your battery and give you a boost to push on through the afternoon productively, and to clear away the cobwebs of drowsiness that simply make it tough to keep your lids open.
Before considering taking a nap, however, you need to first protect that main sleep session that will come later in the evening. The effects of napping can be such that your ability to get to sleep at night will become significantly impaired. The nighttime sleep should be as long as possible, so if it is likely your nap will hinder that goal don’t take a nap.
However, it is possible, appropriate and even desirable to take naps if done in the right way. A good nap can refresh your mind, improve productivity, enable you to be more alert, put you in a better mood and give a boost to motor skills. There is even some evidence that napping can help remedy headaches and migraines.
A NASA study showed that naps help improve some memory tasks. A study at Harvard found that napping reverses the effects of “information overload”. If you occasionally get a short night of sleep a nap can help make up for some of that lost sleep, provided you stick to the following guidelines.
Napping Do’s and Don’ts
Don’t: First and foremost, if you are suffering from insomnia, depression or another sleep-disrupting disorder you should avoid naps. The tendency for people who are chronically sleep-deprived is to want to take long naps to try to make up for the lost sleep. This is counter productive. That nap will kill your ability to sleep at night which will continue to compound the insomnia in a downward spiral.
Do: Naps should only be 10-20 minutes in length. These are sometimes referred to as “power naps” because they give you just enough rest to re-energize for a productive and “powerful” afternoon of work. A short power nap is long enough to snap out of the afternoon funk, re-balances your homeostatic sleep mechanism and helps you feel so much better. However, it is short enough that it will not have a negative impact on your ability to sleep at night. A 20 minute nap ends before you go into deep sleep.
Don’t: Naps that are more than thirty minutes in length may have lasting effects that make it very difficult to get to sleep at night. It is between 25-60 minutes that your mind will enter “deep sleep” stages, which often causes you to wake up feeling more groggy than when you started the nap.
Do: You should plan to finish your nap no less than 7 hours, and preferably 8 hours, before bedtime. If you regularly go to bed at 10 PM, then aim to finish your nap somewhere between 2-3 PM.
Don’t: By no means should you nap in the evening. Even a short nap in the evening can make it very difficult to get to sleep on time at night. Unless: Well, almost by no means. If you are driving or operating heavy machinery, or if for some other safety reason you need to take a nap in order to stay awake for the next few hours then a nap can help you do that.
Take Naps like a Pro
Many people avoid taking naps because they are afraid that once they fall asleep they will sleep for too long. This is common for sleep-deprived people, and often a nap on a comfortable bed in a warm room will last for 1-2 hours.
The solution to this is to remove the comfortable bed and the warm room. Sleep in an uncomfortable position. A person who is drowsy to the point of nodding off can usually sleep in quite uncomfortable positions, but only for a short while. I usually take naps while sitting upright at my desk. In this position I usually only stay asleep for about ten minutes or so, and rarely as long as 30 minutes. Or, I may choose to take a nap in a place where there is disruptive noise nearby that I know will wake me up soon.
If you are ready for advanced napping techniques you may want to try a ‘caffeine nap’. What is a caffeine nap, you ask? You may really like this one! It supposedly takes about thirty minutes for the effects of caffeine to wake you up. So, start out by consuming a reasonable dose of caffeine. You have to take it fairly quickly, so your best bet is cold or lukewarm coffee, a soda or tea.
Once you’ve consumed the caffeine, take a nap! About twenty minutes into the nap the caffeine should begin taking effect and you will wake up feeling energized and downright zippy! Give this one a try and let us know how it works for you in the comments, below. Caffeine naps have been found to have the greatest positive effect, out of several different remedies, on late night driving.
Napping is a healthy choice if done appropriately. Keep naps brief. Take them in the early afternoon. Use them when you really need the boost. Don’t take them to make up for two hours of lost sleep the night before. Follow these guidelines and naps may become your new best friend!
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