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Does Napping Hurt More Than Help Your Sleep?

woman_taking_a_nap_in_chair.jpgADULTS SOMETIMES JOKE that they wish they could cash in on the naps they refused to take as kids. It seems the less time we have to fit a nap into our schedules, the more we need one. But are naps really all they’re cracked up to be? Some naps are restorative, while others seem to leave us feeling more groggy and unfocused than before. Turns out, the outcome depends on the length of your nap.

Benefits of Napping

In some parts of the world, an afternoon nap is standard. That’s because the body experiences a period of drowsiness in the early afternoon due to both the sleep cycle and the metabolic process.

Timed correctly, an afternoon nap can help you feel awake and alert enough to finish the work day on a high note. Workers lucky enough to squeeze in a powernap can use this snooze time to replace the coffee or energy drinks that many people use to combat the post-lunch slump. According to the Mayo Clinic, other benefits of napping include improved mood, better reaction time, and a sharpened memory.

Sleep Cycle

To understand the ideal nap length, it helps to know the basics of the sleep cycle. It consists of five phases:

    • Phase 1: “drifting off” transition phase
    • Phase 2: light sleep
    • Phase 3: slow wave or deep sleep
    • Phase 4: the deepest sleep phase, slow-wave only
    • Phase 5: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep

These cycles vary somewhat from person to person, but as a general rule of thumb, a full cycle lasts about 90 minutes.

What’s the Best Nap Length?

It may seem counterintuitive, but a longer nap isn’t always better.

The ideal nap should correspond with your sleep cycle. A powernap of 10 to 20 minutes is perfect for those who need a lunch break pick-me-up. That’s because during this time frame, your body is in Phase 1 and Phase 2 of sleep. Waking from Phase 2 will help you feel refreshed.

If you wake during Phases 3 or 4, you will feel groggy and have a hard time focusing. It usually takes about half an hour to recover from waking at this point in the cycle. If you have a longer block of time and need a nap, 90 minutes is the best nap length. It allows your body to finish one full sleep cycle.

When Do Naps Become a Problem?

If you’re habitually napping during the day because you don’t sleep well at night, it’s possible that you’ve created a sleep deprivation cycle for yourself. While naps are a good short-term fix for daytime drowsiness, they can’t replace the health benefits of quality sleep. If you’re a napper and find it hard to fall asleep at night, try:

    • Moving your nap to an earlier time of day
    • Taking a shorter nap
    • Phasing out naps altogether

Going to bed at a consistent time and getting seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is ideal to reap the many cognitive and physical benefits of restorative sleep. If you’re sleeping well at night, many sleep experts agree that a daily nap is not a problem and is, in fact, helpful.

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