It’s How You Nap That Matters…

I’ve written before about the benefits of napping, and many research studies have shown that there are benefits to taking a daytime nap. Humans are biologically programmed to sleep at night, and to take a nap in the midafternoon, though scientists aren’t sure why.

So when Heidi Mitchell wrote a story about napping in today’s Wall Street Journal, I was curious to see if there was anything new on the subject.

The story features David Dinges, the chief of the Division of Sleep and Chronobiology in Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. Dr. Dinges offers advice on what is the most effective way to reap the benefits of napping.

According to Dr. Dinges, there are two types of naps, voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary (or intentional) naps are those where an individual makes a conscious decision to take a nap. Involuntary naps are those where an individual just dozes off without having planned to do so. (I’ve done a lot of involuntary napping while in the act of writing this blog over the past three years. I’ve also seen my students do a lot of involuntary napping (at least I hope that’s the kind of nap they’re taking) over the years).

Dr. Dinges notes that voluntary naps are the far better of the two types of naps. Intentional naps are the best way to fill up a person’ sleep tank. “So if you live on a schedule where you only get six hours of sleep a night and you get 45 minutes of intentional naps a day, you don’t develop much of a sleep debt,” he says.

The problem with involuntary naps is that often times a person’s head falls over, triggering the part of your brain that feels you’re falling, which wakes you up. These involuntary sleep episodes don’t provide much benefit, because “the brain doesn’t progress into sleep far enough for recovery, so it’s more like a disturbed night of sleep,” Dr. Dinges says.

A couple of helpful ways to avoid involuntary naps is to drink some caffeine, or to plan for a voluntary nap.

Here are some steps to take to get the most out of your nap:

  • Find a cool, dark, quiet place
  • Put all your electronics away
  • Limit your nap to 15-60 minutes
  • Set an alarm so you don’t oversleep
  • Have some caffeine after the nap to alleviate the post-nap sleep inertia

So apparently just dozing off while in the middle of something is not the way to achieve the benefits associated with napping. Like most things in life, the best results are had when there is a little bit of planning.

But as I noted in my previous article about napping, this is something I have trouble with, napping seems like an act of laziness.

But now that I’m armed with all of this research, who would dare to question me when I say, “I’l be back; it’s time for my nap.”


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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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