Is Your Nap Helping or Hurting? A Sleep Expert Weighs In

Is Your Nap Helping or Hurting? A Sleep Expert Weighs In

Although the “there are two types of people in this world…” phrase has been played out since people started saying it, there really are two types of people when it comes to the nap: you either nap or you don’t. The Coop Dream Team, believe it or not, is pretty pro-nap (when in Rome, you know?), but we decided to do some digging into the hard facts and evidence behind our beloved midday snooze seshes.

We figured now that the sun is setting early and it’s getting chilly out, what better time than now to broaden our nap knowledge? We spoke with sleep expert Dr. Leigha Saunders, a naturopathic doctor and founder of True Roots Healthcare and The Sleep Fix, who demystified naps and broke down just how (and when!) they can help. Read on for her tips and advice!

The Science of Sleep

“Naps help to relieve sleepiness and fatigue during the day by alleviating what is known as ‘sleep pressure,’” says Dr. Leigha Saunders, an expert in sleep medicine. “Sleep pressure is caused by a chemical called adenosine that builds in our body the longer we are awake.”

Saunders explains that adenosine reaches its maximum concentration in our bodies between 14–16 hours after we’ve been awake. This causes that familiar feeling of sleepiness; it’s our body’s way of saying it’s time to hit the sack! “When you sleep—and in this case, nap—adenosine is cleared from the body to relieve sleep pressure, allowing you to feel more awake and alert.”

Sound familiar? That’s because taking a nap has a similar effect to drinking caffeine. “Caffeine blocks the ability of adenosine to communicate to your cells and send the message that you’re tired,” says Saunders, who is very pro-nap.

How to Judge

So, when it comes to napping and determining if it’s helping or hurting your nighttime sleep and daytime energy, ask yourself a few questions:

1. How are you sleeping at night?

Midday naps are only a problem if you also experience trouble falling and/or staying asleep at night. “Sleeping well” at night means you quickly fall asleep when your head hits the pillow, and you stay asleep over the course of the night to get at least seven hours of consolidated sleep. If you wake up, you fall back to sleep quickly; you don’t find yourself asking why you haven’t fallen asleep yet or frustrated that you’re lying awake. If you’re sleeping well at night and napping during the day, then your nap isn’t a problem!

2. How regular is your bed and wake up time?

Your internal body clock, a.k.a. your circadian rhythm, loves routine (even if you think you don’t!). Picking a consistent wake up time helps to regulate your sleep-wake cycle and increase the likelihood that you’ll fall asleep faster and get into a deeper sleep each night. If you find that napping during the day causes you to push your bedtime later, only to cause you to want to sleep longer and later in the morning, the nap might have to go.

3. How long are you napping for?

A quick “power” or “cat” nap is usually less than 30 minutes. These naps can relieve just enough sleep pressure to help you feel more energized without interfering with your night time sleep. Short naps are also associated with increased mental clarity and productivity. However, if you’re napping for longer than 30 minutes, you risk getting into the deeper stages of sleep. This has two potential downsides: you may wake up from a deep stage of sleep from your nap, only to feel more tired and groggy, or you may sleep through a whole sleep cycle (90 minutes) and relieve enough sleep pressure that your ability to fall asleep at night is going to be delayed.

Morning, Noon, or Night?

Generally, if you are napping, earlier in the day is better compared to in the evening. This allows more time for sleep pressure to build over the remaining part of the day for you to sleep well at night.

Napping too close to bedtime can sometimes delay your ability to fall asleep when you move to your bed because enough sleep pressure has been relieved. Naps should ideally be no later than 3–4 p.m. for most people with a standard/average bedtime around 10 p.m.–12 a.m. Anything later than that risks decreasing sleep pressure to the point of interfering with falling or staying asleep that night.

Sleepy or Sleep Deprived?

When it comes to knowing if you are sleep deprived or simply tired, you need to look at your sleep patterns. Good quality and quantity of sleep looks like:

1. Falling asleep quickly. This can be gauged by the non-conscious effort or realization you are “trying” to fall asleep. This typically looks like getting into bed, putting your head on the pillow and not lying there long enough to think “Why haven’t I fallen asleep yet?” or becoming frustrated that you haven’t fallen asleep yet. Typically, this is around than 10–20 minutes.

2. Staying asleep over the course of the night. If you do wake up, you fall back to sleep easily.

3. Getting seven to nine hours of consolidated, uninterrupted sleep on average each night

4. Waking up after seven to nine hours of sleep and feeling rested.

If you aren’t consistently meeting the criteria for good sleep, you are likely sleep deprived. In the medical literature, this is generally defined as less than seven hours of sleep on an average nightly basis. If you are meeting the criteria above and still wake up tired or feel tired throughout the day, an underlying medical condition, like sleep apnea, low thyroid function, or nutrient deficiencies like low iron, may be playing a role in your fatigue.

There we have it! Naps are mostly good, after all. How do your nap habits compare to the suggestion of Dr. Saunders? Leave us a comment below! Be sure to follow Dr. Saunders on Instagram for more helpful sleep tips!

Featured image: @hey.its.rachel.b