Napping: 3 Proven Health Benefits

Napping benefits and how to enjoy them
woman napping on the couch

You stayed up too late binge-watching your new favorite show, and now you’re dragging. You could turn to a venti latte to put some spring in your step. But is there a better way?

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A good old-fashioned nap might be just what the sandman ordered.

“Napping can help you feel a little more energetic, alert and relaxed,” says psychologist and behavioral sleep disorder specialist Michelle Drerup, PsyD.

But not all siestas are created equal. Dr. Drerup explains how a daytime doze might help you — and how to design the perfect nap.

Are naps healthy?

Naps have a lot going for them, Dr. Drerup says. For some people with sleep disorders, daytime naps might even be a scheduled part of your treatment plan.

But healthy sleepers, too, can benefit from a midday snooze. What can a catnap do for you?

Improve performance

If you’re nodding off at your desk after a late night, a short nap can take the edge off your sleepiness. But you don’t have to be sleep-deprived to benefit from a quick lie-down. Various studies have found that naps can increase alertness, speed up reaction time and improve logical reasoning abilities.

Boost your memory

Trying to learn a new skill? A nap might be just what you need. Researchers have found that people who learn new tasks remember them better after a short nap.

One study found that people who took an hour-long nap remembered new information better than people who took a break or crammed before the test. And of the three groups, the nappers remembered the info best a week later.

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Help you face frustration

A nap can help ease stress and may even turn a sour mood around. Research has shown that after a midday nap, people are less impulsive and can deal better with frustration.

How to build a better nap

Naps can be a real treat. But some siestas are more helpful than others. Here’s how to design a nap that works.

How long should I nap? 

You don’t need a marathon nap session to reap the rewards. In fact, shorter naps tend to be the sweetest.

So what’s the magic number? “For most people, a power nap of 15 to 30 minutes is the best strategy,” Dr. Drerup says. “That’s long enough to feel refreshed, but not so long that you’ll move into deeper stages of sleep or take away your sleep drive for the next night.”

Long naps can cause two problems, Dr. Drerup says:

  • Sleep inertia. Have you ever woken up from a nap feeling groggy and dim-witted? Blame a phenomenon called sleep inertia. When we slumber, we cycle through different phases of sleep. Later stages of sleep are deeper — and harder to wake from.
  • Insomnia. If you sleep too much during the day, it can make it harder to sleep at night. Then you wake up tired and tempted to take another long nap the next day. “It becomes a vicious cycle,” Dr. Drerup says.

When should I take a nap?

You don’t need a daily nap to reap the benefits, Dr. Drerup says. But on days you can fit it in, a short power nap might give you a welcome boost.

“It’s common to feel sluggish in the midafternoon, thanks to the natural pattern of our circadian rhythms,” Dr. Drerup says. “If you can’t focus or be productive, that might be a good time to squeeze in a quick power nap.”

Sleeping too close to bedtime, though, can screw up your nighttime slumber. “If you are awake during traditional hours, try to avoid napping past 2 or 3 in the afternoon,” she says.

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But there are exceptions to that rule. “If you do shift work, an evening nap before your shift starts can really help with alertness,” she says. “Similarly, a nap before a long drive can help you stay alert during the trip.”

Do you have to nap?

While some people feel refreshed after a power nap, you don’t need to nap to be healthy, Dr. Drerup says. “People experience the benefits of napping very differently.”

Some people are naturally better at conking out during daylight hours. Often, catnaps become more helpful as we age. “As we get older, our sleep becomes lighter, and we wake up more at night,” Dr. Drerup explains. “For many older adults, napping can help them function better.”

But don’t sweat it if you have trouble falling asleep during the day. “Don’t worry if you can’t nap. Some people just can’t sleep well during the day, and there’s no harm in that,” she says.

On the other hand, if you can’t make it through a day without climbing into bed, it could be a sign of a problem. “Relying on long, frequent naps might signal an underlying sleep disorder or another medical issue,” she says. “Mention it to your doctor to rule out any problems.”

If you’re healthy and sleep OK at night, but find yourself dragging? There’s a nap for that.

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