Are afternoon naps good or bad for you?

Do you sometimes find yourself nodding off at your desk around mid-afternoon? Are you hooked on your 3pm caffeine hit to get through the rest of the day?

If you’re craving for a siesta, some experts say ‘just go with it’. Putting your head down for a nap may do wonders for your concentration and short-term memory.

Celebrate the siesta!

The word siesta is Spanish for ‘nap’.

The tradition of having a short rest in the middle of the day has been around for centuries. It’s been popular in hot-climate countries, like Spain, Greece, Italy and the Philippines, where workers took a break to avoid working in the hottest part of the day. It also gave people a chance to go home and see their family and friends and enjoy a leisurely lunch.

But it’s not only popular with outdoor workers. Corporate giants such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, Google, Uber and Nike have introduced dedicated nap areas in the workplace. As well as being a popular employee perk, management believe it supports the health of their employees – which makes them work better and stick around longer.

Why do our bodies feel the afternoon ‘crash’?

Sleep-deprivation is one reason people crave an afternoon nap. If you’ve been staying up late and not getting your seven to eight hours of regular sleep, you’re going to feel tired. With around 33-45% of Australian adults reporting a lack of quality sleep, it’s no wonder they’re flagging by mid-afternoon.

The body’s circadian rhythms influence a whole range of bodily functions including your sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, eating habits, digestion and body temperature. There’s evidence that there’s a dip in alertness and an increase in the desire to sleep around the middle of the afternoon.

What’s so good about napping?

A significant study into the benefits of napping in healthy adults found the following:

  • How much benefit you get from a nap varies depending on age, gender, the timing and length of your nap and the quality of your sleep overall.
  • The more you nap, the better you’ll feel after a nap.
  • Napping can improve your mood. It can also improve your cognitive performance, such as your ability to learn, reason logically and your reaction time.
  • Compared to drinking a cup of coffee or a slug of cola, the benefits of a nap are less variable and longer-lasting – but combining to two had even greater benefits.

Another study confirmed that a 60 to 90-minute nap could be as good as an 8-hour sleep when it comes to learning certain tasks.

When’s the best time to take a nap?

  • If you’re sleep-deprived, it’s best to take your nap in the early afternoon.
  • People who are notching up regular quality sleep at night will get more benefit from a nap later in the day.
  • If you do like a nap, try and do it at the same time every day.

How long should you nap?

One study indicated that a 20-minute nap could be beneficial, helping to avoid the negative effects of the ‘post-lunch dip’.

Another study had sleep-deprived people napping at different times of the day for 2 hours. The experiment showed that reaction time improved no matter when people had their nap. But the results indicated that these naps did not improve a person’s overall level of sleepiness if they were not getting their regular night’s sleep.

Is there a downside to the afternoon nap?

As with many things, there is also a downside.

1. Sleep inertia

Researchers have identified that ‘sleep inertia’ – the groggy feeling you get after you wake – is a negative effect of having a nap. Neuroscientist and chronobiology expert Kenneth Wright says that sleep inertia is caused by ‘displaced melatonin’. Melatonin is the hormone responsible for regulating sleep and making us sleepy.

This lack of alertness following a nap can last between two and four hours. It might lead to us doing something we shouldn’t, or making a less than optimal decision.

According to Professor Wright, “Cognition is best several hours prior to habitual sleep time, and worst near habitual wake time.” In other words, if you do have an afternoon nap, you’re unlikely to be up and ready to do productive work for some time.

2. Naps wreck your night-time sleep

Too much day-time sleep can interrupt the natural rhythm of your night-time sleep. It might make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep at bedtime.

3. Naps could increase inflammation

There is some evidence that too much sleep, including daytime naps, could increase your levels of C-reactive protein in the body. This is a marker of systematic inflammation. It’s associated with all sorts of unpleasant health conditions including depression, diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

To nap or not to nap, that is the question

It seems the research so far on the benefit of napping can be a little confusing to the average punter.

What’s clear is the importance of regular, quality sleep. We get our best sleep when we follow the natural light patterns of the day and our body’s natural rhythms. The exact time you should sleep and wake can differ from person to person. The best advice is it’s important to be consistent and that snoozing during the day is not making up from a lack of regular sleep.