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Neat Little Guide — 12 minutes

The art and benefits of napping

With 40 percent of Canadians suffering from some form of sleep disorder, and many more simply struggling to make it through an afternoon at work, napping is an easy but often overlooked way of increasing energy, alertness and general well-being.

Naps: A Healthy Habit

a woman sleeping in her bed

While daytime napping is a regular lifestyle habit among people living in warm-weather countries, it is not so widely practised in Canada. Whether due to a perceived lack of time or a negative impression, this brief moment of rest is too often neglected by many adults.

This is unfortunate, given the hectic pace of contemporary life and its many demands on our attention, as well as the fact that so many of us often do not get the daily recommended hours of sleep. It doesn’t require much — regularly taking just a brief nap of only 10-20 minutes, at the right time of day, can have benefits that richly reward such a small commitment of time.

  • According to researchers at Université Laval, nearly 40% of Canadians have sleep disorders, including 12% who suffer from insomnia.
  • Napping stimulates your ability to learn, improves memory and helps reduce blood pressure.
  • The benefits of a nap as brief as 10-20 minutes are well documented, especially for those in demanding, high-pressure occupations. Researchers at Stanford University have found that emergency room clinicians who nap for about 25 minutes had fewer performance gaps and felt more vigorous and less tired or sleepy than their non-napping counterparts.
  • As we age, the number of hours of sleep tends to decrease to an average of 6.5 hours per night, especially among seniors 65 and over. By taking longer naps during the day seniors can more easily attain the daily recommended 7-8 hours of sleep.

Naps aren’t necessary, and they’re not for everybody, but on those days you’re suffering from fatigue, napping can make you more aware and attentive, and improve your memory.

The aim of this guide is to help you better understand the benefits of napping to work performance and overall well-being. We’ll take you step-by-step through the science behind napping, and help you master the fine art of the nap.

The Science Behind Napping

Many researchers support the theory that napping is the result of an innate biological rhythm in all mammals, including humans. When we are drowsy in the early afternoon, it’s just our body’s natural circadian rhythm. Your body is secreting a hormone that makes your body briefly think it’s time for bed. Though this lull in energy should eventually pass as the afternoon goes on, napping has evolved as a habit of both humans and animals to further counteract the effects.

The Nap in Minutes

How long you nap can make all the difference between feeling refreshed and focused, or groggily struggling to get back on track with your day. Let’s look at the benefits and risks of various nap durations.

To better understand the stages of the body’s sleep cycle consult our Neat Little Guide on Sleep Disorders.

Tips for Getting a Good Nap

Whether making them a regular part of your daily routine or simply indulging in one as needed, naps can improve mental alertness, energy levels, cognitive performance and physical stamina. But naps can also have longer-term health benefits as well, including:

  • Boosting the immune system
  • Decreased stress and risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Improved memory function
Make it Short

As indicated above in our breakdown of sleep cycles, naps of 10 to 20 minutes are much more effective and restorative than 5- or 30-minute naps. Unlike longer naps, these short ones do not cause post-waking drowsiness. If possible, drink something caffeinated before a nap of this duration. It may seem counterintuitive, but the boosting effect will likely take at least 20 minutes to manifest and assist you in regaining alertness. Use a timer or alarm to ensure you don’t oversleep.

When to Nap

According to our circadian rhythm, heavy drowsiness is most often felt in the afternoon, typically between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m., and accompanied by a significant reduction in alertness. This sudden fatigue can occur in both sleep-deprived and well-rested individuals. An afternoon nap between 12 and 3 p.m. can be beneficial and give you the energy boost you need to finish the day.

Other tips
  • Nap in a calm, dark and quiet place; a bed is best for comfort.
  • If you experience drowsiness while driving, pull over to a safe place immediately. In this case napping in your car seat will do just fine.
  • If you try to nap and can’t fall asleep your body might not be as tired as you think. It’s possible it's only your mind that needs a rest. Consider a brief period of meditation or deep breathing instead; there are apps available that can assist with such exercises.
  • If you regularly feel the need to have a nap, it may be a sign that you have a sleep disorder. Consult your doctor or a sleep specialist.
Other things to keep in mind
  • If you feel very sleepy during the day, limit your nap to less than an hour before 3 p.m.
  • If you are suffering from insomnia, avoid napping, or limit it to 15-20 minutes before 3:00 p.m., in order to help build up your need for sleep.
  • If you are an early riser (between 3:00 and 5:00 am), take a 90- or 180-minute nap (1 or 2 complete sleep cycles) after your lunch (this is a good time to nap). Or you can take one to three 20-minute naps spread throughout the day.
  • For night-shift workers, you can take a nap of about 1.5 hours before your shift, or for about 45 minutes during the first half of your shift. Have a coffee just before your nap.

If you are driving and experience symptoms of drowsiness (e.g. repeated yawning, neck stiffness, drooping of the head, itchy eyes, heavy eyelids, shifting around in your seat), or notice that your capacity for driving has become impaired (straying over the centre line of the road, forgetting the last few kilometres, missing an exit) you must immediately stop driving and pull off the road. Park in a safe place and take a 20-minute nap. In these cases napping can save both your own life and others.

Other important advice

Too often we regard napping as a luxury, not as a biological necessity critical to our overall health and wellbeing. Don’t think of it as something you need to find extra time in your busy day for – when done properly, napping will only improve the productivity and enjoyment of the time you spend awake, whether at work, with family and friends, or doing the things that you love most.

The ideal nap for most of us is 10-20 minutes, ideally taken between 12 and 3p.m.; if possible drink a caffeinated drink beforehand.

Napping can be healthy complement to practicing good sleep hygiene. But only sleep if you need to.

If you suffer from insomnia do not nap.

Note that napping won’t address chronic feelings of fatigue due to a sleep-related disorder, or sleep apnea (a respiratory disorder). Consult our Neat Little Guide on Sleeping Disorders for more information on the types of disorders and how to cultivate good sleep hygiene.

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