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Tips from a Power Napper

Leigh and her cat Erie May napping away.
Leigh and her cat Erie May napping away.

Sleep is something a lot of people don't get enough of. When we're tired, junk food becomes more tempting. Our ability to react quickly to changing situations slows, and we're more prone to making bad decisions. The obvious solution is to get more sleep, but that's not always possible in our hectic 24/7 world.

A simple solution is to take a nap.

Naps should not be seen as a long-term way to handle poor quality sleep. Used properly, they can help you get through the day when you've had a bad night. When your energy starts to dip during that sleepy time in the afternoon from 1:00 to 4:00 pm, they provide a nice pick-me-up. But over weeks and months, lack of deep, restful sleep at night cannot be recovered in a daily nap.

Naps can reduce blood pressure. It's only been proven for adults over the age of 50, but regular afternoon naps can bring blood pressure levels down by 3 to 5 millimeters of mercury. That's the same drop seen from other lifestyle changes like salt or alcohol reduction.

Naps can also be good for adolescents. In clinical trials, napping children developed better cognition, better psychological wellness and reduced emotional/behavioral problems.

Short naps of 15-20 minutes can help when you're traveling and need a little boost. When athletes were given post-lunch or pre-exercise naps, their alertness and physical performance improved. However, naps that last longer than 20 minutes or taken before competitions that required explosive speed like sprints didn't help. They slowed down the athlete's response time when the event happened right after a nap.

Here are some rules for power napping.

First, not everybody should be taking a nap. For people who don't sleep well at night or have insomnia, taking a nap can be counterproductive. Getting a little rest during the day can leave you more awake at night when you want to be sleeping.

Choose short naps that last no more than 10-20 minutes or long naps that take a full 90 minutes. Resting just 10-20 minutes prevents you from going so deep into sleep that you'll feel groggy when you wake up. If you have more time, plan for 90 minutes. That's generally long enough for your body to go through a full sleep cycle, so you'll wake up feeling refreshed. Anything in-between those two can wake you up when you're in a deeper part of your sleep cycle and cause sleep inertia.

According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, "Sleep inertia is the period of impaired performance and grogginess experienced after waking." That slower reaction time may last just 10 minutes after you get up, to as long as 45 minutes, depending on the overall quality of sleep you get. If you're doing work that requires life or death decision-making like nursing, firefighting or policing, you might want to add some wake-up time after a nap to make sure you're fully alert and functioning.

Workers in critical positions that have long shifts, 12 to 16 hours, should not view “strategic napping” as a way to improve performance. If you start a shift sleep-deprived, taking a nap still leaves your abilities “significantly impaired.” There are only a couple of ways to deal with the situation. If you're an employee, take every opportunity to increase the quality and quantity of your regular sleep. If you're an employer, you should make structural changes to your workplace. You shouldn't create situations where sleep-deprived employees may accidentally hurt or kill someone.

Naps tend to be more effective if they're done within 2-3 hours after your lunch. That's when your body naturally tends to slow down. Do it much later than that, and it may interrupt your ability to sleep at night.

Try taking a walk outside in sunlight if you can't take a nap. It's common for people's core body temperature to drop in the afternoon, causing your brain to make more sleep-inducing melatonin. Melatonin levels drop when you're exposed to sunshine, so a walk outside can make you feel more alert.

Get your shut-eye before the gym. Workouts tend to stimulate your brain, making a nap after exercise more difficult.

Consider taking a drink of caffeine, like coffee, right before you start a short nap. Caffeine takes 15-20 minutes before it starts to work. Taking a drink before a short nap guarantees it'll start kicking in right about the time you should be waking up.

Don't force yourself to take a nap if you're not tired. Some people cannot doze off during the day. You might be well-rested enough that you don't need a nap, so don't do it.

Clinical Research on Napping: Click on the title below, and it will open a new window with a synopsis of the study in a PDF file.

The role of a short post-lunch nap in improving cognitive, motor, and sprint performance in participants with partial sleep deprivation.

A brief pre-exercise nap may alleviate physical performance impairments induced by short-term sustained operations with partial sleep deprivation - A field-based study.

Daytime naps can be used to supplement night-time sleep in athletes.

Sleep Interventions Designed to Improve Athletic Performance and Recovery: A Systematic Review of Current Approaches.

Effects of a Short Daytime Nap on Shooting and Sprint Performance in High-level Adolescent Athletes.

Brief (<4 hr) sleep episodes are insufficient for restoring performance in first-year resident physicians working overnight extended-duration work shifts.

Midday napping in children: Associations between nap frequency and duration across cognitive, positive psychological well-being, behavioral, and metabolic health outcomes.

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Updated 4/29/2021