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The Pros and Cons of Taking Naps | Sleep Reset

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November 4, 2022

Napping and Insomnia: The Pros and Cons of Taking Naps

Medically reviewed by: 

We all know the feeling. Work isn’t over, but you’re already longing for bed. Just thinking of a nap is enough to give up all your tasks with the knowledge you could get it done after a quick 30-minute snooze. But would taking that break really help? 

Napping is excellent if you need to reduce a small sleep debt, but it might not be so valuable for those experiencing insomnia or poor sleep quality. Below, we'll examine the pros and cons of napping and how it can fit into your circadian rhythm. 

How does napping affect sleep?

Napping can have both positive and negative effects on sleep, depending on how it fits into your circadian rhythm.

If you don’t need them often, naps can help you recover from a poor night’s sleep. They can also improve alertness and concentration. However, naps can further disrupt your circadian rhythm if you're already struggling to fall asleep at night. A recent study published in Sleep that looked at naps and insomnia found that frequent naps are associated with "persistent insomnia symptoms" in middle-aged adults.

Naps are about timing

The key to a helpful—not hurtful—nap is timing. Naps taken early in the day, before 3 p.m., are more likely to be refreshing and energizing. Naps taken later in the day, after 3 p.m., are more likely to interfere with nighttime sleep.

There are a few different reasons for this.

First, our bodies have a natural circadian rhythm that dictates when we should sleep. Our exposure to light primarily determines this rhythm. In the morning, light signals to our brains that it's time to wake up. In the evening, as the sun sets, our brains starts to produce melatonin, a hormone that makes us feel sleepy.

Napping late in the day can interfere with this natural rhythm, making it more difficult to fall asleep at night.

Next, it's important to consider how the timing of naps affects sleep stages. Adults have four recognized sleep stages: two stages of light, non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, one stage of deep NREM sleep, and one stage of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Early or late afternoon naps often achieve NREM sleep. This type of rest is easy to wake up from, allowing you to return to your day quickly and restfully.

In contrast, naps taken later in the day are more likely to include deep NREM sleep and REM sleep. This type of nap can leave you groggy and disoriented when you get out of bed. It can also make falling asleep later more challenging.

Tips for non-disruptive napping

Do naps help with sleep debt? Yes, but they can also make it worse. If you're going to nap, try these tips to ensure it doesn't disrupt your nighttime sleep.

  • Keep your naps short. A 20–30 minute power nap is often all you need to restore energy and focus.
  • Avoid napping late in the day. If you must rest later, try to keep it to 15 minutes or less so you don't fall into a deep sleep.
  • Finally, consider napping in a chair or another comfortable place that isn't your bed. The foreign sleeping space should help keep your nap short. 

 Overcoming drowsiness without naps

When you're struggling with daytime sleepiness, napping isn’t inevitable. There are a few things you can do to fight drowsiness without napping.

  • Try to get active. A brisk walk around the neighborhood or some other light activity can help you feel more awake.
  • Have a snack. Eating an energy-rich snack like nuts or a hunk of cheese refuels your body.
  • Get some sunshine. Exposure to natural light helps regulate your circadian rhythm.
  • Relax. Stress is draining. On tired, hectic days, take a moment to self-soothe.
  • Turn down the temperature. It's easy to doze off in a comfortable, slightly overheated room. Turning down the temperature can help you stay awake.

You may have noticed a notable omission…caffeine. Caffeine can be highly effective at keeping you alert. Too effective, actually. Caffeine can stay in your system for hours, so avoiding consuming it late in the day is vital.

Fight daytime sleepiness without naps

Napping seems like a good idea at 2:30 pm, and you struggle to keep your eyes open. Naps are not always the answer to daytime sleepiness. They can sometimes make the problem worse.

The best way to feel energetic and awake during the day is to address the sleep issues causing your daytime fatigue. If you’re often experiencing daytime sleepiness, take the sleep quiz to receive personalized recommendations to sleep better.