When schedules get packed and life starts to get crazy, hours devoted to sleep are often the first casualties. Most folks figure that if they miss some sleep now and then the will be fine. That’s true, but one night of compromised sleep has a way of turning into two nights, then three in a row, until you’re only getting a good night’s sleep on the weekends.
Sleep deprivation can cause all kinds of problems, both short and long term. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, losing sleep can lead to short term effects:
- Lack of concentration and increased distractibility
- Forgetfulness and poor decisions
- Lack of coordination and energy
and has been linked to long term problems:
- High blood pressure
- Heart attack
Naps are a good way to fight off daytime sleepiness and decrease the issues associated with lack of sleep, at least the short-term ones. When it comes to napping, however, there’s more to it than just sleeping while the sun’s up. According to the Wall Street Journal, it’s not just whether you nap, but how you nap that’s important.
First of all, the time of day at which you nap matters. Lots of people notice a dip in focus and energy in the afternoon, and this is a good guide for when you should nap. Most experts recommend starting your nap between 2-3PM, when your blood sugar might be dipping and your body is spending its energy digesting your lunch. Taking a nap much later than this in the day puts your body at risk of being too wakeful when it comes time to go to bed at night.
The length of your nap can also have a huge effect–different length naps have different benefits, as well as drawbacks. We’ve all felt the effect of taking a nap only to wake up more sleepy than when we started. Different length naps take you to different parts of the sleep cycle (sometimes called the REM cycle), which affects how you sleep, how it benefits you, and how you wake up.
Sleep cycles are quite predictable for most healthy adults, and last around 90 minutes per cycle.
- 15-20 minute naps: These are great for getting a quick boost in energy and getting you through the rest of your day without yawning every fifteen minutes. A short nap barely gets you into a sleep cycle, so you wake up before you’ve entered a deep sleep. This means you won’t be sleepy when you wake. Quick tip: caffeine takes about 20 minutes to take effect. Drinking a cup of tea or coffee right before your nap will give you a window in which to sleep before the caffeine helps you wake up extra refreshed.
- 30 minute naps: A slightly longer nap doesn’t give you many extra benefits, but it does start to stretch into the portion of your sleep cycle where you are sleeping deeply. This means that waking up from a 30 minute nap will be tougher than waking up from a 20 minute nap, and you may feel sleepy for about 30 minutes following the nap. Try to keep it shorter if you’re looking for a little catnap.
- 60 minute naps: Hour-long naps start to give you the benefits of an almost-complete sleep cycle. If you’ve been studying for a test or doing other memory tasks, a 60-minute nap can help solidify those memories and improve recall. Be warned, however, that an hour is about two-thirds of the way through your sleep cycle, and you will be sleepy when that alarm goes off. The grogginess will usually go away after a half hour or so.
- 90 minute naps: A whole sleep cycle. This length gives you the benefits of a 60-minute nap without the lingering sleepiness. At the end of a 90-minute sleep cycle, the body is once again in a period of very light sleep, and waking at this point is easy, with little grogginess to speak of. If you have the time to take an hour and a half long nap, this is a way to make up for lost sleep the night before.
- Anything longer: Sleeping more than 90 minutes could threaten your normal sleeping pattern, meaning your afternoon snooze translates into late-night tossing and turning. If your work schedule makes it so that you have to sleep in two shifts (say, five hours at night and three hours in the afternoon), your body actually can adjust to the new sleeping pattern. Remember, though, consistency is key. Make sure to keep your two-part sleep schedule going on weekends so you don’t confuse your body too much.
Napping, generally, is a short-term fix for afternoon sleepiness. To stave off long term cardiovascular health issues, you’re better off getting 7-9 hours each night than consistently getting 6 hours and a 15 minute nap. Regular naps can improve attention and energy, but they are no substitute for taking care of your body and getting enough sleep each night. Happy napping!