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Is napping ever a good idea? How to nap without damaging your health

Shot of a young woman having a nap on the sofa at home
Many of us feel we would benefit from a nap - but would we, really? (Getty Images)

The pros and cons of napping have been widely debated - and researched - for years. But some new research has found that people who have daytime naps tend to have larger brains than those who don't.

The study, conducted by University College London also revealed that a daily, 30-minute or less nap can delay ageing by three to six years.

Read more: Short daytime naps may keep brain healthy as it ages, study says - Guardian, 3-min read

Afternoon naps have long been a mainstay for successful people throughout history. Albert Einstein and Leonardo Di Vinci were both avowed daytime dozers and Sir Winston Churchill liked nothing better than the "blessed oblivion" of a nap.

However, in contrast to this new research, a prior study from the American Heart Association's journal Hypertension revealed that napping on a regular basis is not only associated with a 12% higher risk of developing high blood pressure but it also carries a 24% higher risk of having a stroke.

Crucially, the research, led by E Wang, a professor and chair of the Department of Anesthesiology at Xiangya Hospital Central South University in China, also found that a higher percentage of men were more prone to napping, especially those who drank alcohol regularly, smoked cigarettes and snored.

It’s not the first study to suggest that napping might not be the most effective way to recharge the batteries. In 2020, scientists from Guangzhou Medical University in China examined over 300,000 people in 20 separate studies and found that napping for more than an hour a day was linked to a 34% greater chance of developing heart disease and even a 30% higher risk of premature death.

Daily napping is linked to higher rates of high blood pressure. (Getty Images)
Daily napping is linked to higher rates of high blood pressure. (Getty Images)

Why do some adults feel the need to nap?

There are innumerable reasons why you might be more predisposed to napping than other people, and it’s not just catching on your sleep that’s at play. Vitamin deficiencies can often leave you fatigued so if you’re lacking in vitamin B-12 and vitamin D, as well as magnesium, potassium and iron then there’s a much greater chance you’ll be tired during the day.

Your tendency to drop off might also be down to anaemia where you don’t have sufficient haemoglobin in your blood, forcing you heart to work that much harder to pump oxygen around your body, leading to tiredness.

Then there is the issue of stress, anxiety and depression, all of which can cause fatigue and all of which have increased markedly in recent years following the COVID pandemic and the cost of living crisis.

Daytime napping might result in a temporary uplift in energy and mood but, equally, it can lead to what’s termed 'sleep inertia' where you wake from a nap feeling disorientated and a little groggy.

Moreover, it can also have a negative impact on the quality of your sleep during the night hours too, which is when your body and mind needs it most. Likewise, the weekend lie-in, which can also be counter-productive.

Napping can lead to 'sleep inertia' which leaves you with a groggy feeling. (Getty Images)
Napping can lead to 'sleep inertia' which leaves you with a groggy feeling. (Getty Images)

Michael J. Breus Ph.D, is a clinical psychologist and Fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. He’s also the man they call 'The Sleep Doctor' and he believes that those more prone to napping are invariably those caught in vicious cycle of bad lifestyle choices leading to poor quality sleep and, inevitably, fatigue the following day.

"The reason these people have this issue is likely due to poor sleep quality at night causing daytime sleepiness," he says. "Just look at what the Hypertension study found where usual nappers' characteristics are include lower education and income, smoking and daily drinking of alcohol. To me, that seems like an almost perfect recipe for bad sleep."

Ideal time to nap and how long for

The secret to successful napping is to keep it short and sweet. The medical research journal Sleep, for example, concluded that limiting your naps to 10-15 minutes in the early afternoon led to marked improvements in cognitive performance after waking but any longer than half an hour and it’s more likely that sleep inertia might kick in.

Breus suggests having a small cup of coffee just before your nap – the so-called 'coffee nap' – the idea being that the caffeine will work its effects just as you wake up, helping you to snap out of any post-nap grogginess.

If you can't get through the day without a nap, timing is very important. (Getty Images)
If you can't get through the day without a nap, timing is very important. (Getty Images)

Timing is important, too, and if you simply can’t make it through the day without your regular nap then it’s a good idea to make it a part of a regular and predictable sleep schedule. So try and take it at the same time every day but also make sure you have it before 3pm. Any later and, again, you run risk of waking up groggy and less alert.

The later you leave your nap will also affect your ability to get to sleep when you do to bed later at night as it plays havoc with your wider sleep-wake schedule.

But as Michael Breus advises, a daytime nap should never be a replacement for a good night’s sleep. "Napping can help relieve fatigue," he adds, "but it can’t reverse the negative effects of chronic sleep loss."