Brief Naps Help Your Health

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December 2, 2014
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

Do you get drowsy in the afternoon? Find yourself nodding off after lunch? If so, you might need a “power nap.”

What exactly is a power nap? It’s simply a short, sweet version of the afternoon nap. But instead of snoozing away half the day, a power nap typically lasts no more than 20 minutes.

That may not sound like much. But research shows that a brief nap about eight hours after awakening actually provides you with more rest than sleeping an extra 20 minutes in the morning!

Madeline, a long-time patient, began having sleep problems after she took a job that required her to get up much earlier than she was used to. When she complained about feeling like a zombie from lack of sleep, I suggested she try a power nap around lunch time.

“Those quick naps work like a charm,” Madeline told me when I asked about sleep during her next visit. I go out to my car, put the seat back, and goodnight! About 15 or 20 minutes later, I wake up feeling refreshed and ready to go.”

The benefits of napping are due to your body’s circadian rhythm. This natural, 24-hour cycle involves your body temperature, hormone releases, blood pressure, and sleep-wake patterns. These events are all governed by your internal body clock, which is synched to changes that occur during the day and night.

Disruptions in your circadian rhythm are most obvious when you travel to a different time zone and find yourself struggling to either wake up or go to sleep. That’s because your body clock is confused by the time change.

Your body clock is also responsible for the drop in energy so many people experience during the afternoon. That’s why siestas are so common in other cultures. In this country, we’re more likely to grab a sugary snack or go for a caffeine boost.

If you find yourself nodding off in the afternoon, a short, power nap is a healthier—and more energizing—choice than caffeine or a snack. 

Napping is actually more common than you might realize. More than one-third of the respondents in a recent survey by the National Sleep Foundation say their employers—companies like Google, Zappos, and Nike—encourage naps at break time.

Why? Because it turns out that “sleeping on the job” actually increases employees’ productivity, learning abilities, and attentiveness.

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Sounds good, right? But there’s a right and wrong way to nap. And if you’re doing it wrong, you could be putting your health at serious risk.

Here’s how you can nap without risk of creating a whole new set of health issues.

The secret of healthy napping is to keep it brief, no more than ten to twenty minutes at a time.  

In contrast, long daily naps are linked to a number of health concerns, including:

  • Elevated levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker for inflammation linked to heart disease and cancer that I constantly warn my patients and readers about;
  • For women, an increased likelihood of developing metabolic syndrome, a cluster of risk factors that includes abdominal fat, high levels of blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure, putting you at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic ailments.
  • An increase in both frequency and duration of GERD episodes, compared with nighttime sleep, factors which could make the disease worse.

With those thoughts in mind, here are my suggestions for healthy napping:

  1. Find a comfortable spot where you can lie down and not be disturbed for a short time. My patient, Carl, for example, prefers to nap in a recliner or on the sofa, rather than in bed, because he says it’s easier to wake up. Try different places until you find one that suits you.
  2. If you have trouble waking up from naps, set an alarm to prevent over-sleeping. Several studies have shown that people who consistently sleep for several hours during the middle of the day might have underlying health issues, especially respiratory difficulties.

Actually, long daytime naps tipped me off to another patient’s  life-threatening breathing problems. When Paul came to my clinic complaining of sleeping two to three hours each afternoon, I tracked the source of his problem to sleep apnea—an ailment that causes the patient to stop breathing while asleep, waking him up as often as 30 times in an hour! So if your naps tend to be long, it’s time for a comprehensive check up and possibly a sleep study.

  1. If napping leaves you groggy, spend some time learning how to meditate. Meditation has outstanding health benefits, including reduced stress levels and improved sleep at night.

One final point: If you’re plagued with insomnia or interrupted sleep at night, take melatonin supplements. This powerful antioxidant has none of the potentially serious side effects linked to pharmaceutical sleep aids.

When it comes to melatonin, less is more. Two to three mg usually does the trick for my patients. Anything more can overload melatonin receptors making your sleep problems even worse.

Sleep may seem like a guilty pleasure that you’re supposed to resist whenever possible—and that attitude is completely wrong! When you’re sleepy, your body is trying to tell you something. Pay attention, please!

Sleep is an essential part of living, a chance for your body to repair and renew itself. A power nap gives you an opportunity to get a little extra protection. If you’re in a situation where that makes sense, why not do it?

None of my patients who’ve tried power napping are disappointed in the benefits. And I don’t think you will be, either.

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