There are times—countless times in fact—when a nap seems heaven sent.
Recall the last time you had a truly great nap—maybe it was on a lazy Sunday afternoon; a moment of respite from a busy weekend of blissfully doing nothing. Or perhaps it was a few stolen hours of rest on a recent holiday, or maybe it was a food coma-induced shut eye on Christmas Day.
A nap can often feel like the ultimate form of relief when you are truly tired, and indeed naps have been proven to help improve our alertness and coordination when exercised wisely. However, there are some times in the day when napping can be detrimental to your health, and could even be the thing preventing you from getting your optimal eight hours of nightly sleep.
What happens when we nap?
Here’s the thing: napping is sleeping. It sounds self-explanatory, but a lot of people categorise napping separately to sleep even when this isn’t true. A nap might be a shorter, more contained form of sleep, but it is regarded as sleep nonetheless.
What that means is that naps count toward your sleep debt and balance, and any time spent napping during the day could impact your sleep in the evening. If you usually sleep for seven or eight hours a night and you take a three hour nap that day, your body may not want or need that full evening’s rest, and you might find yourself going to bed later or waking up much earlier than you are used to.
This is because of a hormone called adenosine, otherwise known as your sleep drive. The longer you stay awake, the more adenosine builds up in your system, effectively telling your body over and over again that it’s time to fall asleep. Adenosine is responsible for making you feel tired—it ushers you into the circadian rhythm that eventually pulls you into slumber.
When you take a nap, your adenosine levels lower, meaning that when bedtime comes around, you might find that you aren’t sleepy at all. Instead, your nap has thrown your usual sleep rhythm completely out of whack, meaning it may take you a lot longer to feel the effects of drowsiness, and even longer to actually doze off entirely.
Consider sleep disorders
This sort of disruption is exacerbated if you suffer from insomnia or other sleep disorders, which may make it easier for you to nap during the day but challenging to fall asleep at night. For this reason, napping should be avoided at all costs, because it could be the obstacle that is hindering you from finding a cure for your sleep issues. If you find yourself napping frequently during the morning or afternoon, or desperately needing a nap in order to make it through each day, then you could have a sleep disorder and should see a medical professional.
If we return to adenosine, it’s important to remember that it’s not all bad news. Adenosine levels aren’t typically impacted greatly by a short nap in comparison to long naps. If you really want to clock some shut eye in the afternoon, constrain your naps to less than 20 minutes a day. Any longer than 40 minutes can be detrimental to your health and should therefore be avoided in order to prevent any sleep disruption later on in the evening. Should you choose to doze off in the day, the optimal time for napping is between two and three in the afternoon. It’s here—after a big meal—that your body will run its natural course and desire a snooze.
Remember, however, that a nap could lengthen the time before you get drowsy, meaning that you may have an extra eight to ten hours in the tank before your adenosine levels start to dip into drowsy zone again. For example, if you have a nap at four in the afternoon, that may mean that you won’t crave sleep again until at least midnight.
Weigh up the pros and cons
Ask yourself honestly: how much do I need this nap? What am I going to lose (or gain) because of it? Can I nap efficiently (for 20 minutes)—will this help?
Remember too that it’s all about balance. If desperately required, a nap can alleviate some tiredness and help you regain control of your concentration and awareness. If, however, you’re napping for the sake of napping—or because you just want to get cosy and wrapped up in bed—then make sure you give yourself ample time to build up those adenosine levels again by nighttime—and make sure it’s worth the wait.
If you are concerned about your health, wellbeing or sleep, your first port of call should be your GP, who will advise a correct treatment plan.
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