As children most of us hated taking naps no matter how necessary they might have been. As adults we might not seem to be able to get enough of them.
Naps in most western cultures have a sort of stigma attached to them. They might seem to many to be the refuge of lazy people. Other parts of the world find it absolutely acceptable to have an afternoon siesta, and according to science, they’re the ones that are getting it right.
Humans are actually programmed to sleep, not in one eight hour stretch, but in smaller segments of time, a few times per day. It’s been shown to reboot our brains and make us better problem solvers, learners, and workers. Not all naps have the same benefits as others, though, and how long you nap depends on what kind of benefits you’d like to get.
Many experts, such as those over at the National Sleep Foundation, recommend a relatively short nap of between 20 and 30 minutes for an immediate boost in productivity and alertness. Nap for any longer than that and you’re likely to have trouble falling asleep later.
There’s also the problem of something called “sleep inertia.” That’s the recovery time you need to wake up completely after a nap, and spending more than half an hour sleeping at one stretch during the day will leave many people with a prolonged, groggy feeling that negates the idea of napping in the first place. This differs between people, and some of us can’t nap for more than about 10 minutes without struggling to wake up.
The improvement to alertness and brain function that we experience after a short nap lasts only between one and three hours, on average, before we’re feeling tired again. Longer naps of more than half an hour will give us a much, much longer period of feeling better, once we shake off the groggy feeling and recover from the shortened sleep period.
There’s also a very different and bizarrely specific type of nap that’s been called the six-minute nap. Because of the length of time that our sleep cycle takes, sleeping for six minutes can help us become more efficient at accessing our long-term memory. Similarly, napping through a few of these cycles can also help lengthen the improvement of our recall, as long as we’re in that six-minute time frame.
For those of us with irregular schedules, we might also try a 90-minute nap. Putting your head down for 90 minutes has been found to produce a minimum amount of the above-mentioned sleep inertia, while completing one of our full sleep cycles. This means that if we’re looking for a boost to our creativity or a little stability to our emotional state, a 90-minute nap is the way to go.
Different naps have different associations with physical benefits, too. Nap for 45 minutes, and you’ll find you’re lowering your blood pressure. Nap for 30 minutes at a time during the day on a regular basis, and you’re 37 percent less likely to suffer from heart disease.
Aside from duration, there are other differences in naps. Taking a nap purely for relaxation and enjoyment is called appetitive napping, while those who work naps into their daily schedule are habitual napping. Emergency napping happens when you’re in the middle of doing something and become so run down and sleepy that you just can’t keep doing what you’re doing without a break to recharge. And those of us that prepare for a late night out with a quick afternoon nap? That’s planned napping.
Regardless of why we nap, or the duration or pattern of our napping, the really are good for you on nearly any level. So if you feel the urge or the necessity to do so, don’t hesitate to catch a nap when you have the chance.