Dear Doctor: My Type A husband, who naturally falls asleep for about 25 minutes on weekend afternoons, complains that he’s wasting time when he does so. How do I explain to him the benefits of napping?
Answer: Millions of people take a daily nap. In many cultures, the afternoon sleep break is built into everyday life.
In the goal-oriented United States, though, napping carries a stigma. It sounds as though your husband has internalized that feeling, which is too bad because you’re correct — a daytime nap is often a good thing.
Studies show napping does more than just reduce fatigue. It can elevate your mood, improve productivity and make it easier to learn and retain information.
But not all naps are equally beneficial. What time you nap and for how long make a difference.
A nap as brief as 10 minutes and up to 30 minutes can leave you feeling energized. Sleep much longer than half an hour, and chances increase you’ll wake in a mental fog.
The reason is that sleep is quite complex. Not only are there several different stages of sleep, they occur in distinct cycles.
When you first drift off, you move from light sleep, from which you can awaken easily, into ever-deeper sleep. Your brain waves and even your brain chemistry change. It becomes progressively more difficult to awaken.
The other stage of sleep is REM sleep, short for rapid eye movement. This is the cycle during which you dream and in which the brain registers significant electrical and chemical activity. Fall short on REM sleep, and it’s possible you’ll wind up feeling cranky or irritable.
Sleep experts agree that mid-afternoon is optimal for a nap. Your body clock is naturally primed for a break, and it’s far enough from bedtime to not interfere with your night’s sleep.
It takes about 90 minutes for your body and brain to go through a complete sleep cycle. Sleep too little, and you’ve barely grazed the surface of light sleep. Sleep too long, and you’re swimming up from the groggy depths of deep sleep. Aim for 20 to 30 minutes, which puts you into the earliest stages of REM sleep and lets you wake up easily, refreshed.
For the best naps, choose a location that’s dark and quiet. Lying down results in better sleep than sitting or reclining. Setting an alarm will let you relax into your nap and assure that you’ll wake up before deep sleep takes hold.
Dr. Eve Glazier is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Dr. Elizabeth Ko is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health.