Ask any group of people how they feel about naps, and you’ll likely hear strong feelings in either direction. Some folks swear by their daily afternoon snooze, while others hate the groggy feeling they get from napping. If you work odd hours or don’t sleep well through the night (thanks, chronic pain), naps can be a saving grace to keep your energy levels afloat. But they can also make it harder to fall asleep when it's really time for lights out.
Conflicted? So is the research. One study in the medical journal Heart found that people who nap one to two times per week have a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease. Another study in Personality and Individual Differences showed that napping can improve emotional control. But other evidence, including a new review article in Sleep Medicine, suggests that long naps may actually increase your risk for heart disease or early death. Say what?
Before you call it quits on your napping habit, let’s dive into the details.
To Snooze or Not to Snooze?
Zhe Pan, M.D., a researcher at the First Affiliated Hospital of Guangzhou Medical University in China, was the lead author on the Sleep Medicine study. He explains that his team wanted to tackle this controversial issue by looking at nap duration rather than frequency. They wondered if the amount of time someone spent napping could be a factor in their overall health.
Was there a difference between a 30-minute snooze session and a two-hour mega-nap?
Dr. Pan and his researchers found evidence that nap duration does matter. Specifically, napping longer than 60 minutes per day is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. Shorter naps don’t pose the same risks, and in fact may even promote heart health for sleep-deprived individuals.
The study didn’t point to precisely why long naps can hurt your health, but Dr. Pan explains that there are many potential factors to consider. “Long nap duration was negatively associated with physical indicators like higher depression rate, older age, less physical activity, and poor mental health status, which all were important predictors of all-cause mortality,” he says.
Essentially, people who take long naps may be the same people who are older, less active, or experience more health problems overall, so it’s tough to make a clear causation link here. But the review authors also found evidence that napping can increase inflammatory markers in the body. “Levels of inflammatory marks, such as C-reactive protein and interleukin-17, have been reported to increase in subjects who took long naps," says Dr. Pan.
In addition, they discovered that nighttime sleep is a relevant factor. People who slept less than six hours per night benefitted more from napping than those who slept a full seven to eight hours. “For persons who sleep well at night, we believe that they should maintain a shorter nap, less than one hour,” Dr. Pan explains. “But for those who need naps to battle fatigue, we consider napping an appropriate way to counteract the negative consequences of sleep debt.”
There’s a Nap for That
Given how different your sleep habits, job schedule, lifestyle, and health needs are from the next person, it’s tough to put a concrete label on whether naps are good or bad. Susheel Patil, M.D., clinical director of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Medicine Program in Baltimore, explains that the Sleep Medicine review raises “some interesting questions about naps” and their health implications—but it doesn’t mean napping is officially a no-go.
Perspective is important, Dr. Patil explains. “It’s not that long naps themselves are necessarily bad for people, but rather it may be a marker of other things that are going on,” he says, such as chronic fatigue from an underlying condition. If you aren’t sleeping well at night, take a few minutes to think about why.
Are you stressed out? Is pain keeping you awake? Are your circadian rhythms out of whack? “It may be that you’re not allowing yourself adequate opportunity for sleep, or it may be a window into the fact that you’re having other sleep-related problems,” he says. In that case, “you should talk with your clinician about it.”
Don’t Sleep on This Advice
As a rule, it’s best to keep your naps short and early, Dr. Patil suggests. “Most sleep experts will say that brief naps are probably okay, and they are alright when they occur earlier in the day and farther away from an individual’s normal sleeping period,” he says. Otherwise, you’re at risk of messing up your nighttime sleep. Think of a nap like you might think of coffee—it’s great for an energy boost early in the day but indulge too late and you’ll be up all night.
Here are some other simple ways to improve your sleep habits:
- Set a routine. “Keeping to a regular schedule is probably the most critical element that we take for granted,” Dr. Patil says. He suggests setting a consistent wake-up time and bedtime—but if you can only pick one, go with the wake-up time. This helps your body adapt to its daily schedule and will assist you in falling asleep more easily at night.
Adopt a bedtime ritual. If you’re able to relax for an hour or so before bed, this can help your body prepare for sleep. “It’s so important [to] make sure you have a wind-down period before you go to sleep, free of technology as much as possible,” Dr. Patil says.
Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet. These three things can promote an environment that fosters ideal sleep conditions, Dr. Patil explains. Your body temperature naturally cools down when you sleep, so a chilly room can speed this process. If you live in a city and deal with noise and light pollution, try wearing an eye mask and playing white noise to drown out the nighttime sounds. You’ll be dozing off before you know it.