Whether we call it a nap (or catnap or power nap), a snooze, 40 winks or a siesta, a short sleep during daytime is a fine thing. William Shakespeare famously wrote “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Therefore, I will use “nap” as a collective term, encompassing any or all the different versions.

Napping is considered by some as a sign of laziness or ill health. Those who practice the noble art of the nap would disagree, as there are many benefits they enjoy from this so-called bad habit. Let’s take a look at the underlying physiological reasons for napping, what we could gain from it, and how to ensure that we get a good one.

Why We Feel Like Napping

Human sleep patterns are governed by our body clocks, called circadian rhythms. Each one of us has a slightly different circadian rhythm, but generally we tend to feel awake when it is light and feel sleepy when it is dark. Our body chemistry governs this phenomenon, mainly by the hormone melatonin. The pineal gland in the brain secretes melatonin.

Although our melatonin levels are dependent mainly on light and darkness, many of us feel sleepy in the middle of the day, often after lunch. This mid-afternoon slump is characterised by low energy levels and difficulties to concentrate, which wreaks havoc with our productivity. For some people, this phenomenon is simply part of their circadian rhythm. They are not deliberately trying to feel sleepy, or skip work.

Before humans could create a safe bubble in which one can sleep for hours at a time, getting 8 hours of continuous sleep was a rarity. Discomfort and noise made us wake up more often, and the presence of ravenous beasts forced us to sleep more lightly. Taking daytime naps was the only way we could get enough rest.

There are different ways to overcome the mid-afternoon slump. Some try to get more nighttime sleep, and others try to stave it off with copious amounts of caffeine. The easiest, most effective way is to surrender to it. Take a nap. Don’t fight it, feel it.

Don't fight the nap, feel it.

Why Some People Avoid Taking Naps

People who avoid napping often have good reasons for doing so. Their main complaint is sleep inertia – feeling disoriented and groggy, even short-tempered, when waking up from a nap. Another complaint is that it interferes with their nighttime sleep – they struggle to fall asleep, and wake up too early.

I am the last person to criticize people’s choices, but if I consider the complaints above, it is clear that they are not doing it right. Their main stumbling block to enjoying a good nap is in the nature of the sleep cycle.

The Sleep Cycle

  • Over the course of a night’s sleep, we typically go through 4 – 6 sleep cycles of roughly 90 minutes each. We divide a sleep cycle into 5 stages (some sleep researchers combine stage 3 and 4):
  • Stage 1 – Light sleep, muscle activity decreases.
  • Stage 2 – Heart rate and breathing slows and there is a slight drop in body temperature.
  • Stage 3 – We start sleeping deeply and our brains begin generating delta waves.
  • Stage 4 – Very deep sleep and rhythmic breathing, with our brains producing delta waves.
  • Stage 5 – Rapid eye movement (REM), rapid and shallow breathing, with a slight increase in heart rate. This is the stage in which we have dreams.

Once we enter stage 4 in the sleep cycle, it is very difficult to wake up, and when you do, you will experience sleep inertia. If you wake up before your brain starts producing delta waves, you will wake up more easily and escape the horrors of sleep inertia. If you stretch your nap a little in order to go through the entire sleep cycle, you will also be good to go, and you’ll experience minimal discomfort. As with many things in life, the art of napping relies, in part, on your timing.

The Benefits Of Napping

Napping enhances our quality of life. It makes us feel good. In physiological terms, these are a few key benefits:

• Nervous System Reboot And Repair

The rest we get when we take a nap gives our nervous systems some downtime for repair and fine-tuning. The benefits are far-ranging: from short-term memory improvement and more creative problem-solving to enhanced motor skills. We will also feel refreshed and more alert, which leads to enhanced productivity.

• Cardiovascular Relief

When we take a nap, our bodies go into parasympathetic mode, also known as “rest and digest”. Our heartbeat slows and our blood pressure decreases. Over time, this reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, in some cases by up to 35%.

• Immune System Reset

Sleep deprivation disrupt our immune systems and our bodies produce more leukocytes. This is an indication that our bodies are fighting inflammation. When we take a daytime nap followed by a good night’s sleep, our leukocyte levels quickly return to baseline levels.

• Stress Damage Reduction

Our bodies produce more of the hormone cortisol when we are stressed or anxious, which helps us deal with the (real or imagined) sticky situation. This heightened physical state becomes harmful if it lingers – causing damage to our endocrine-, nervous- and cardiovascular systems. When we take a nap, our bodies release the growth hormone, a buffer against the harmful effects of cortisol.

The Art Of Taking A Really Good Nap

1. Experiment

experiment with napping

The first step is to find out what type or length of nap works best for you. As our sleep cycles and body chemistries are different, this is time well spent. Try different lengths of naps first. Some people find a 10-minute nap refreshing, others cannot even fall asleep in such a short time. If you are prone to sleep inertia, avoid napping for longer than 30 minutes. If you have established the effects of different lengths of naps, you can tailor your nap to suit the desired outcome.

2. Find The Best Possible Setting

We are often limited in our choices when it comes to the perfect place for a nap. This is most likely because most of us are at work in the early afternoon. If you are lucky enough to have your own bedroom available, go for it. Otherwise, find somewhere as quiet as possible. It should also be cool and comfortable enough for you to fall alseep. Improvise if you can – bring a pillow for a nap at your desk and use earplugs to muffle distracting sounds. Choose a place where you will feel safe.

3. Train

A nap is supposed to be restful, so it seems odd to use “train”. However, this kind of training has more to do with programming – to get your body to “agree” to the idea of taking a nap. This is easy in an ideal environment, but could be challenging anywhere else. The trick is to go through the steps of taking the nap, even if you do not necessarily fall asleep the first time(s) you try. Work on a falling-asleep -routine, which will be especially handy when you have limited time for your nap.

The Novel Coffee-Preceded Nap

This sounds contra-intuitive. Won’t the coffee just wake you up and make napping impossible? For someone with an average metabolism, caffeine takes 20 – 25 minutes to start working – an ideal length for an energizing nap. The caffeine will lessen the time you need to transition between being sleep and wide awake, so you can tackle the rest of your day immediately. It is just one example of creative napping; the possibilities are endless.

Institutionalised Napping

Finally, I have to make special mention of what could be considered the ultimate nap: the siesta. It is the only nap that has been culturally embedded in parts of the world, traditionally around the Mediterranean. In some towns in the south of Spain, for example, the siesta process can last for a few hours, during which the whole town would shut down. Now that takes napping to a whole new level.