How Sleep Works During Nap Time
We all need to take a break from time to time, and a nap can often be just the thing to help us recharge and get back on track. While most of us are familiar with the concept of napping, most folks don't fully understand how the sleep we get while napping can be different than the sleep we get at night. In order to understand the difference we first have to understand some basics about brain waves.
Brain waves change depending on what stage of wakefulness we are in. For example, during fully wakeful moments most folks are experiencing Beta brain waves. Alpha waves happen when the brain is in a calm and restful state, like during yoga nidra or the first few moments of drifting off to sleep. Theta waves occur once the body has passed into a deeper stage of sleep (I'll explain sleep stages in a moment). While Theta waves are occurring in the brain, the body is in a light sleep that might be roused by loud noises or movement nearby. Finally, in deep sleep, Delta waves occur in the brain. Each type of brain wave and stage of sleep affects how we feel after we wake up and what "work" is done in the consciousness, subconscious and body during sleep.
It's also important to understand that during a nap, your brain cycles through different stages of sleep, much like it does during a full night's rest. The lengths and levels of these stages vary depending on the duration of your nap and your personal sleep habits. The first stage is light sleep, where you're in and out of sleep and can be awakened easily. This is followed by rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, during which your brain is more active, resulting in dreams. The final stages, known as deep or slow-wave sleep, play a vital role in memory and learning.
Sleep can be different during naps than at night because the environment is often different (think more light, more noise, etc.), your circadian rhythm is not in play and the duration of sleep is much shorter. Napping can be like a quick refresh, like topping off the oil in your engine before you have a chance to do a full cleanse and reboot at night.
When Should I Consider a Nap?
Napping is an age-old ritual that can be beneficial to your overall health and well-being. While many people may think of napping as something only children do, taking a nap can be an important part of your daily routine. If you’re feeling sluggish and having difficulty concentrating, you may need a nap more than you think. Recognizing signs that your brain may require a nap - such as excessive daytime sleepiness, decreased performance or mood changes - can be a valuable way to be proactive about your health. Incorporating a short rest into your day can immensely improve cognitive function, focus, and overall mood.
Here are five signs that you should take a nap.
1. If you’re feeling lethargic or exhausted, then it’s definitely time for a nap. Feeling tired and unable to focus can be signs that you’re not getting enough sleep. A nap can help to restore your energy and alertness. A nap is also a good sign if you're feeling physically exhausted. During nap time, the body naturally begins to wind down, preparing for sleep. As the body relaxes, the muscles and brain slow down, and the body begins to produce the hormone melatonin, which helps induce sleep. Taking a nap can give the body and mind an opportunity for restorative action, reducing the burden of fatigue.
2. Another sign that you may need to take a nap is if you’re having difficulty concentrating. During sleep, the body cycles between REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep, with the average person spending around 20-25% of their total sleep time in REM sleep. During nap time, the body is able to rest, and the mind can drift into a state of relaxation and restorative sleep. This can be especially beneficial if you're feeling mentally fatigued, as it can help to restore focus and concentration. If you’re having trouble focusing on your tasks, a nap can help to reset your focus and give you the boost you need to get through the day.
3. If you’re feeling irritable or moody, you may be in need of a nap. Lack of sleep can leave you feeling grumpy and low on energy. By taking a nap, the body is able to recharge, restoring energy and focus, and improving overall health and psychological wellbeing. A short nap can help to break up the day, providing a much-needed break from the stresses of life and helping you to stay in a better frame of mind.
4. Making decisions can be difficult when you’re tired. If you’re finding it hard to make decisions, it may be time for a nap. Having a quick nap can help to clear your mind, give your subconscious an opportunity to tackle the decision at hand and make it easier to think.
5. Finally, if you’re feeling hungry even after a meal, it may be time for a nap. Lack of sleep can leave you feeling hungry even when you’ve eaten. Taking a nap can help to reset your appetite and keep your hunger in check.
If you’re feeling any of these five signs, then it may be time to take a nap. Napping can help to restore your energy, improve your mood, and help you to make better decisions. So if you’re feeling sluggish or having difficulty concentrating, take a nap and get back on track!
How Long Should a Nap Be?
We all know the feeling: you’ve been going nonstop all day, and you’re running out of energy. You feel like you could just drop off and take a nap. If that’s the case, you could be in need of a short nap. Taking a nap can be a great way to get a quick burst of energy and refocus your mind.
There are lots of mixed opinions about the duration of the perfect nap. According to Dr. David Dinges, Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, the best naps are between 20-30 minutes long. This ensures that the brain has enough time for waves to move from Beta to Alpha waves but not into the deeper sleep of Delta waves. If you've ever taken a longer nap and woken up feeling groggy and tired, it's because you entered into a deep sleep and didn't have time to complete your sleep cycle and re-enter Alpha or Theta brain wave sleep states. The transition out of levels of sleep is just as important as the transition into sleep. It's easier for the body to come out of a light sleep than to come out of a deep sleep without the slow and natural transition that happens due to circadian and sleep rhythms at night.
Short naps are like dipping your foot in a cold pool; lightly refreshing and easier to move on with your day than a full plunge in the lake. Long naps can be nice, but you'll want to allow yourself to wake naturally rather than setting a timer to allow your body to go through a full sleep cycle.
When to Take a Nap
There are lots of opinions about when to take a nap. Some folks love napping in the afternoon, some like nighttime naps. However, most sleep specialists advise to avoid evening naps, which can upset your circadian rhythms. Dr. Dinges recommends napping 12 hours from the midpoint of the previous night's sleep for an optimum napping experience. You'll need to get to know your body to find what time is right for you. Notice when you are naturally tired and nap during that time but also notice how your ability to sleep at night is impacted by when you nap during the day.
Where to Take a Nap
The right conditions for a good nap will depend strongly on your unique needs. However, general recommendations are to avoid places that are public, noisy or dangerous. Set your nervous system up for success by napping in places that feel peaceful and where you won't be interupted by an emergency or by a stranger.
Consider Caffeine Naps
When you’re feeling exhausted and need a quick energy boost, a caffeine nap could be the perfect solution. A caffeine nap is a combination of drinking a cup of coffee or tea before taking a 20 minute power nap. Caffeine naps are a great way to get a quick energy boost and alertness and can be more effective than either a nap or a cup of coffee alone. The combination of caffeine and a short nap can provide a boost of energy that can last up to 4 hours and help to improve alertness, focus, and overall performance.
What are the Drawbacks to Napping?
It's important to know that napping can also be a double-edged sword. If you nap too long, instead of leaving you refreshed, it can leave you feeling sluggish and less alert. If you nap too late at night, you may not be able to sleep well that night. Be aware of these challenges and try to nap in a way that will provide the greatest benefits and the smallest price.
Could a Sudden Increased Need for Naps Indicate a Health Problem?
If your body is so tired that you’re falling asleep at unexpected moments, that’s possibly a call to take a nap. Similarly, if you’re having difficulty concentrating or focusing, it could be time to get some rest. However, if fatigue persists over extended periods of time for no apparent reason, it's wise to chat with your doctor and let them know you're feeling exhausted and tired frequently. There may be underlying reasons for your fatigue that you'll want to look into.