We all have trouble sleeping sometimes, no matter how much effort we put into improving our sleep hygiene. Sometimes a small supplement — meaning, a little nap — can be the perfect balm to a rough night tossing and turning.
"Napping should not be a one-size-fits-all approach."
Other times, a nap makes everything worse, and you wake up feeling worse than before. What gives?
There's sort of an art to the perfect nap, but everyone's physiology is different, so not everyone will respond the same way. Experts say finding that sweet spot can be tedious trial and error. Some people probably shouldn't nap to begin with. It all depends on a person's general health, their environment and the quality of the sleep they receive each night.
"Napping should not be a one-size-fits-all approach," Dr. Rui Pereira, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Birmingham, told Salon. His research has explored the links between sleep deprivation and social functioning, having previously researched sleep in professional athletes. All that travel, competition and training makes sports stars prone to sleep issues and napping between games or on layovers is common behavior.
"When you're struggling with your sleep, you'll probably feel moody, anxious, maybe even with some mild depressive symptom," Pereira said. "You'll feel cognitively slow or not up to your full capacities in terms of your mental performance. So napping can certainly be very helpful in that regard."
Napping is a multi-cultural "sport," if you will. Of course there's siesta culture in Spain, which was exported to Mexico by colonists, but the idea of taking a nap in the middle of the day actually originates from Italy. The word siesta comes from the Latin sexta (hora) "sixth (hour)," because workers would break at the sixth hour after sunrise.
However, napping is a relatively new invention, according to 2015 research in the journal Current Biology. By studying the sleep patterns of modern hunter gatherer tribes — the Tsimane of Bolivia, the San of Namibia and the Hadza of Tanzania — researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles were able to make guesses about how ancient humans slept. These tribes don't sleep more than modern humans (around 6 to 7 hours per night) and rarely take naps, leading the researchers to assume that ancient humans rarely napped as well.
"There's this myth that humans used to take daily naps, but that now — because we're so busy and we can't get back to our homes — we suppress the naps," Jerome Siegel, the study's lead researcher and professor of psychiatry at UCLA's Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior, said in a statement. "In fact, napping, is relatively rare in these groups."
Modern nap culture can still be rewarding if done right. A good nap comes with clear benefits: zapped fatigue, increased alertness, mood improvements and just pure relaxation. But if a nap goes sour, it can trigger sleep inertia, which is when you feel disoriented and groggy after waking up. A bad nap can even make it hard to sleep later, giving people insomnia, repeating the cycle of fatigue and poor attempts to fix it.
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"Naps can be great if they are brief, early in the afternoon, and fairly consistent from day-to-day," Dr. Jade Wu, a sleep psychologist, researcher and author of the upcoming book "Hello Sleep," told Salon in an email. "But haphazard napping, or napping too long or too late (e.g., dozing off while watching TV after dinner) can make nighttime sleep worse."
That said, here are a few practical tips on improving naps.
"It may be that napping is not even connected to your sleep quality at night at all. Napping can also be problematic or just downright impossible for some people."
The difference between a good and a bad nap ultimately comes down to length of time spent napping. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that federal agency tasked with counting COVID cases and overdose deaths, among other things, actually has guidelines for the optimal length of time for a nap. Short naps (15-30 minutes) or long naps (40 minutes or more) are generally the most beneficial. Somewhere in the middle can make some people feel worse.
The timing has a lot to do with sleep cycles. A short nap that lasts a few minutes allows the muscles to relax and systems in the body to slow down. But if you go beyond 40 minutes or so, you may enter REM sleep (short for rapid eye movement), which is when dreaming is most likely to occur. Interrupting this phase or not fully settling into it can make a nap ineffective.
Experts say that where you nap matters. Whether it's the couch, your bed or the back of your car on your lunch shift will impact the quality and effectiveness of resting. Getting too comfortable can backfire if you only mean to lie down for 20 minutes and wake up three hours later, dazed and confused, wondering how you slept through your niece's recital and yet still don't feel better. Somewhere dark or quiet may help some fully rest, while others might benefit from a warm, well-lit room that they know won't send them off into oblivion too easily. Your mileage may vary.
Depending on how sleep deprived you are will also impact nap quality. "If you are very sleep deprived when you start your nap, your brain may progress to deep sleep more quickly," the CDC advises. "As a result, sleep inertia may last longer making it more difficult for you to wake up and feel alert even after a short time asleep."
If you're already the type of person who naps, these tips might make it more effective. But some people may not need to nap, they might need to just sleep better at night instead.
"Don't try to necessarily introduce napping just because you happen to sleep poorly on the night before because that may not turn out well," Pereira said. "It may be that napping is not even connected to your sleep quality at night at all. Napping can also be problematic or just downright impossible for some people."