The 3 p.m. slump: It happens to everyone at some point. You’re at work, post-lunch, it’s warm and you’re feeling drowsy. But you’ve still got a few hours to go before you can log out and head home. Many people reach for a cup of coffee or an energy drink when such feelings set in. But it could be that a brief nap would be a better intervention to help you power through the afternoon productively.
Dr. Peter A. Fotinakes, medical director of the Providence St. Joseph Hospital Sleep Disorder Center in Orange County, California, says this afternoon lull is a great time to get some shuteye, as it fits in with an overarching cycle of sleep-wake that most people naturally experience.
“Napping is a healthy part of our sleep cycle. Within our 24-hour sleep cycle, we enter into two sleep phases — a long phase that occurs during the night and a shorter 30- to 45-minute phase in the afternoon,” says Fotinakes. “We become physically sleepy during these two periods, which encourages and promotes sleep.”
Typically, most people “adhere to the nocturnal sleep phase,” Fotinakes says. But for many people, “daytime activities often promote our abuse of the afternoon sleep period.” Instead of just pushing through with the aid of caffeine or sugar, which can lead to dependence and perpetuate sleep disruptions, he says, “It’s healthier to step back from our tempting daytime activities and succumb to our natural, afternoon sleep period. We should take an afternoon nap, as do many cultures, but Americans tend to push through the shorter, afternoon sleep period in favor of continuing their daytime activities.” It turns out, there’s something to siesta culture, which is more common in warmer climates such as in countries along the Mediterranean Sea, in parts of India and in areas of the Middle East.
In addition to addressing that natural lull in energy many people feel mid-afternoon, “napping can be helpful if you’re otherwise getting insufficient sleep at night,” says Dr. Aneesa Das, a sleep medicine physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
[See: Steps to Fall Asleep Fast.]
Why We Sleep
While it might not seem like it as you’re just lying there, there’s actually a lot going on in your brain and body when you’re sound asleep. It’s the time when your brain processes all you did during the day and removes the waste products it no longer needs. Your muscles are doing the same; during sleep is when the muscles regenerate after a tough workout or your body incorporates a new skill you learned so you’ll be better at it tomorrow. It’s also a time for the body to repair cells that need attention and generally clean house to keep you healthy. Therefore, getting enough high-quality sleep is critical to overall health and wellness.
It may not feel like it sometimes, but your body does in fact want sleep, and it wants sleep on a regular schedule. “Our bodies are very fine-tuned and run a tight ship based on your circadian rhythm,” says Susan Albers, a psychologist with the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
The circadian rhythm is the internal clock that regulates your sleep-wake cycle. The process is keyed by natural fluctuations in light that occur across the 24-hour day. Shifts in light signal the body when it’s time to be awake and when it’s time to sleep. And getting out of sync with this natural cycle can elevate risk for certain health problems, such as dementia. It’s believed that during sleep, the brain essentially takes out the trash; it removes waste products and that function allows the brain to work more optimally going forward.
Routine changes, such as shift work and even the time change that occurs twice a year when moving between standard time and daylight saving time, can throw your internal clock off balance. “When that clock changes, your body struggles to adjust. This change impacts your mood, sleep habits, appetite and hormones,” Albers says.
When to Nap
“The ultimate goal should be getting adequate sleep hours during your major sleep period,” Das notes. “Adults generally need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep.” But individual sleep needs can vary, depending on age, activity levels, genetics and other factors. Some people can feel fully refreshed after 6 hours of sleep while others need 10.
If you’re not getting enough sleep at night, napping might help. If you’re napping to address inadequate nighttime sleep, Fotinakes recommends taking a “power nap” when you need it. These 20- to 30-minute sessions can be restorative. If you can, save that power nap for that mid-afternoon sleep phase when you’re naturally feeling less awake. “This period occurs after lunchtime, but it may vary between individuals and occur anytime from noon to as late as 5 p.m.”
Once you hit the evening, though, it’s best to forge through, Fotinakes says. “You should avoid taking evening naps, because even a short sleep period invigorates you for 2 to 4 hours afterwards and may interfere with your ability to sleep at your normal bedtime.”
[READ: Foods to Avoid Before Bed.]
Less Is More
When it comes to napping, shorter is usually better, Das says. Naps in the 20- to 30-minute range are generally recommended, as “longer naps can induce ‘sleep inertia’ where it’s more difficult to wake up as you may be in a deeper stage of sleep.”
Fotinakes adds that “if we follow our internal sleep cycle and sleep during our afternoon sleep phase, an optimal nap may extend from 30 to 45 minutes.” When power napping, keep it to that shorter 20- to 30- minute time frame, he says. “Any longer and you may enter deep sleep, which leaves you with a hungover feeling upon awakening from the nap. Long naps also have the potential of eating into your nocturnal sleep time,” which can further perpetuate disruptions in your sleep-wake cycle.
If your sleep schedule has been disrupted, whether by a change in the clock or just a busy work schedule, “a brief nap may be helpful,” Das says. But if you’re dealing with nighttime insomnia, that’s a different animal. “If you have nighttime insomnia, you should avoid daytime napping, as that can further exacerbate insomnia,” she explains.
When it comes to both nighttime sleep and naps, listen to your body and your own sleep needs to develop a schedule that works for you. And stick to that schedule. Your brain and body like routine and establishing good sleep hygiene practices can help you get higher quality sleep that’s helpful across various aspects of health, including heart and brain health, mood and appetite.
Good sleep hygiene practices include:
— Creating a cool, dark, quiet place to sleep.
— Avoiding electronics or stressful activities in the hour or so before bedtime.
— Setting a standard sleep and wake time and sticking to it.
— Avoiding alcohol or stimulants that can disrupt sleep. The Sleep Foundation recommends not consuming caffeine within 6 hours of bedtime and stopping drinking alcohol at least 4 hours prior to bedtime to limit disruptions to the sleep cycle.
— Reserving the bedroom for only sleep and sex. This means banishing work, television, eating or reading from the room.
Some business have begun adding nap rooms for workers, and this is a good thing, Das says, especially for businesses where employees are required to work different shifts, such as hospitals. “Allowing a safe space for employees to nap after a long shift, in case they’re drowsy, could help to prevent drowsy driving on the way home.” This could have very immediate life-or-death implications; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that in 2019, 697 deaths resulted from drowsy-driving-related crashes.
For office workers and those on a typical 9-to-5 schedule, a nap room is also a great idea, Fotinakes says. “A nap area would be a wonderful addition to any business environment,” as it can help workers find the refreshment they need to be more productive in the second half of the day.
“In our modern work environment of staring at a computer screen for 8 hours, a nap room would also provide a refuge to take a power nap when the hypnotic computer screen threatens to take us to slumberland,” Fotinakes says. The blue light that illuminates our various screens and devices can trick the eye into thinking it’s daytime and block the release of the hormone melatonin that promotes sleepiness.
Underlying Sleep Disorders
With all that said, it turns out, napping is generally considered to be a healthy activity, Fotinakes says. If you’re following your internal circadian rhythm and taking advantage of that natural afternoon window for sleep, he says it’s quite OK to nap regularly. “Since the afternoon sleep period is an integral part of a normal 24-hour sleep cycle, it is healthiest to anticipate a daily afternoon nap.”
However, while a short, planned daytime nap can be a healthy part of your sleep cycle, “uncontrolled sleep periods and long daytime naps may be a symptom of insufficient or fragmented sleep at night,” he says. This can result from undiagnosed conditions such as sleep apnea or another sleep problem.
“Excessive daytime sleepiness may be an indication of an underlying sleep disorder and be a reason to seek the assistance of a sleep medicine specialist,” he says. (Excessive daytime sleepiness is generally defined as an inability to stay awake or alert for major portions of the time you’re supposed to be awake, such that the sleepiness interferes with your daily activities. Simply feeling tired or fatigued doesn’t typically qualify as excessive daytime sleepiness.) These providers can help you determine the source of your sleepiness and offer treatment alternatives that can get you the sound sleep your body needs.
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