Napping: Why We Need Them, Stigmas, Myths, And Biology

Naps. Some of us can’t survive without them, others think that daytime sleeping is a sign of weakness and laziness and avoid naps at all cost. Science, however, thinks they are wonderful. 

The vast majority of mammal species sleep for short periods throughout the day, and are referred to as polyphasic sleepers. Cats, for example, are the most obvious examples of this, being able to find a comfortable nest on the fly, curl up, and doze off into blissful, deep sleep, only to awaken an hour later, fully recharged, ready to pounce.

Humans fall into a category of what is known as monophonic sleeping creatures, meaning that we typically sleep in accordance with a diurnal frame of reference, daytime and nighttime, light and darkness. Biologists are not quite sure why humans do this, though older humans and young children nap quite readily, and in some cultures, napping is integrated into regular activities and schedules of the day.

As a nation of sleep deprived people, ranked slightly behind countries like China and Korea, where working hours seep into both family time and sleeping time, napping is considered offensive and a nuisance to be avoided. 

Our lifestyle simply does not readily accept napping as appropriate, even though evidence suggests that small micro-sleeps might be critical for longer lifespan, overall health and wellness, and our ability to perform even more effectively without them.

In fact research demonstrates that show naps, lasting about 30 minutes or so, most certainly improves mood and performance, a reset switch for your brain. Sleep experts have found that daytime naps can increase alertness, improve perception, increase stamina, enhance motor skills and accuracy, boost your sex life, aid in weight loss, reduce the risk of heart attack, brighten your mood and boost memory. Naps also boost creativity and alleviate stress.

If you can squeeze in an hour or slightly more, you get even more benefits from daytime napping. It can recharge the brain’s batteries as effectively as seven solid hours of nighttime sleep.

“ The industrial revolution brought about the phenomenon of  cramming all of our sleep into the darkness of night, rather than having one or two catnaps through the day,” says Vincent Walsh, a professor at University College London.

In a study of nearly 24,000 Greek men spanning six years, participants who napped three times per week had a 40% lower risk of dying from heart disease. Pretty impressive medical evidence.

And those who nap have a lot of company through history, too. Winston Churchill, Napoleon, Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Thomas Edison, and George W. Bush all enjoyed in mid afternoon nap.

Churchill managed on just four hours sleep a night during World War Two, but made up the difference by taking a two hour nap in the afternoon, and Einstein slept for 10 hours a night, with additional daytime naps. He kept his brain fully charged, never in the red zone.

Dr. Sara Mednick, in her book, Take a Nap! Change Your Life, states that “daytime naps can be one way to treat sleep deprivation. You can get incredible benefits from 15 to 20 minutes of napping. You reset the system and get a burst of alertness and increased motor performance”.

Further, Josh Bersin, principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, says, “Companies are suffering from tremendous productivity problems because people are stressed out and not recovering from the workday”, implying that naps might be a good thing, though he doubted for years  that that you’d ever see sleep pods or napping centers in most corporate environments. But, that seems to be changing.

Historically, napping at work is a craft that typically must be practiced with extreme caution, as is is often considered a workplace taboo, worse that disappearing for a long afternoon lunch, yet it provides so much additional productivity and alertness that it would seem to be a required daily activity in the modern day cubicle. 

The Japanese even have a word for masterfully and stealthily sleeping on the job, calling it “inemuri,” which loosely translates to “sleeping while present”.

As it turns out, many larger companies are beginning to take note of the power that can be unleashed from an employee who has had a chance to take a power nap.  A growing number of companies are recognizing what research has long been presenting, that workplace mid day napping may come with big advantages, and organizations like Google, Uber, Zappos,  NASA, and Nike, all encourage napping and pitch it to their employees.

If you are permitted to nap on the job, you can genuinely improve your working life by reinventing how you go about the rest of your day. Sleep powers up your brain so it is more effective at  processing glucose obtained from food, providing more mental energy for the remainder of the day. This translates to after hours as well, allowing you to integrate more effectively with family, hit the gym more often, and thus improve your overall health and wellness, which in turn makes you more productive- at work. It’s the full circle effect.

Nature Neuroscience, a scholarly journal, researchers tested a group of subjects on their performance at four intervals throughout the day. they noted that the quality of work performance deteriorated after each test, yet subjects who managed a 30-minute nap between tests no longer deteriorated in their performance, and subjects who took a 60-minute nap even reversed and improved their performance.

“Essentially, naps had the same magnitude of benefits as a full nights of sleep” said Sara Mednick, a contributor to the study and associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside.

The environment, the technique, and the manner in which you nap can help you capitalize on a midday nap and can help squeeze all of the benefit you can, from a 20, 30, or even 60 minute respite nap.

A power nap, for example, is generally designed to be relatively short, say 10-20 minutes. Too long a nap and you risk a groggy after effect, so you need to know your biology and use devices to awaken you if needed, so you don’t drift into nap hangover territory from over-nap effect. 

The National Sleep Foundation suggests that a short nap of 20 to 30 minutes is best for “short-term alertness,” and provides  substantial benefits for improved focus without leaving you feeling groggy or interfering with sleep. Environmentally, find a restful, cool, dark place to lie down in, with minimal noise or distraction. Or invest in a sleep mask you can keep in the office. Earplugs might help, too. If your boss allows it, find a separate area away from the office hum that imprints upon you as an escape area which will encourage you to sleep.

Types Of Napping

Naps can be typed in three different ways:

  • Scheduled Nap– involves taking a nap before you actually get sleepy. You can use this technique when you know that you will be up past your your normal bed time or as a means of preventing from getting tired earlier.

  • Emergency Nap– occurs when you are suddenly become tired and cannot continue working or pursuing your current activity. This type of nap can be used to combat drowsy driving or fatigue while using heavy and dangerous machinery, repetitive task, intense writing or typing, and other tasks that draw large amounts of energy.

  • Habitual Nap (ritual nap)- is practiced when a person takes a nap at the same time each day. Young children may fall asleep at about the same time each afternoon or an adult might take a short nap after lunch each day. Working in an office environment, consistency is the key so you avoid schedule conflicts, particularly if you have the time blocked off.
    ‘Generally, a short nap (2-30 minutes) is usually recommended for short-term alertness. This type of nap provides significant benefit for improved alertness and performance without leaving you feeling groggy or interfering with nighttime sleep.

The sleep environment you choose to ritualistically nap, can greatly impact your ability to fall asleep. Make sure that you have a restful place to lie down and that the temperature in the room is comfortable, ideally slightly on the warmer side if possible. Try to limit the amount of noise by using ear plugs and use an eye mask. Use a light blanket or covering so that you can trick your body into thinking it is evening. While some studies have shown that just spending time in bed without sleep can be beneficial, it is better to try and sleep.

If you take a nap too late in the day, it might affect your nighttime sleep patterns and make it difficult to fall asleep at your regular bedtime. If you try to take it too early in the day, your body may not be ready for more sleep.

Benefits Of Napping

  • Naps can restore alertness, enhance performance, and reduce mistakes and accidents. A study at NASA on drowsy military pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34% and alertness 100%.

  • Naps can increase alertness in the period immediately following the nap and this can extend a few hours later in the day.

  • Scheduled napping has also been prescribed for those who are affected by narcolepsy.

  • Napping has psychological benefits, generally perceived as relaxing, calming, and highly pleasurable, making it more likely that your mind and body will be receptive to it if you remain consistent. It can provide an easy way to get some relaxation and rejuvenation.

Most people are aware that driving while sleepy is extremely dangerous. Still, many drivers press on when they feel drowsy in spite of the risks, putting themselves and others in harm’s way. While getting a full night’s sleep before driving is the ideal, taking a short nap before driving can reduce a person’s risk of having a drowsy driving crash. Sleep experts also recommend that if you feel drowsy when driving, you should immediately pull over to a rest area, drink a caffeinated beverage and take a 20-minute nap.

Shift work, which means working a schedule that deviates from the typical “9 to 5” hours, may cause fatigue and performance impairments, especially for night shift workers. In a 2006 study, researchers at the Sleep Medicine and Research Center affiliated with St. John’s Mercy Medical Center and St. Luke’s Hospital in suburban St. Louis, MO, looked at the effectiveness of taking naps and consuming caffeine to cope with sleepiness during the night shift.

They found that both naps as well as caffeine improved alertness and performance among night shift workers and that the combination of naps and caffeine had the most beneficial effect.

James K. Walsh, PhD, one of the researchers who conducted the study, explains, “Because of the body’s propensity for sleep at night, being alert and productive on the night shift can be challenging, even if you’ve had enough daytime sleep.” “Napping before work combined with consuming caffeine while on the job is an effective strategy for remaining alert on the night shift.”

Negative Effects Of Napping

In spite of these benefits, napping might not be the best option for everyone. For example, some people have trouble sleeping any place other than their own bed, making a nap at the office or anywhere else unlikely. Other people simply have trouble sleeping in the daytime; it could be that certain individuals are more sensitive to ta midday decline in energy and focus than others – those who are may feel sleepier and have an easier time napping. 

Here are some other negative effects from napping:

  • Naps can leave people with what is called sleep inertia, especially when they last more than 10-20 minutes. Sleep inertia is defined as the feeling of grogginess and disorientation that can come with awakening from a deep sleep. While this state usually only lasts for a few minutes to a half-hour, it can be detrimental to those who must perform highly specific tasks immediately after waking from a napping period. Post-nap impairment and disorientation is more severe, and can last longer, in people who are sleep deprived or nap for longer periods.

  • Napping can also have a negative effect on other sleeping periods. A long nap or a nap taken too late in the day may adversely affect the length and quality of nighttime sleep. If you have trouble sleeping at night, a nap will only amplify problems.

  • One study has indicated that napping is associated with increased risk of heart failure in people already at risk.


While research has shown that napping is a beneficial way to relieve tiredness, it still has stigmas associated with it.

  • Napping indicates laziness, a lack of ambition, and low standards.

  • Napping is only for children, the sick and the elderly.

Though the above statements are false, many segments of the public may still need to be educated on the benefits of napping.

A recent study in the research journal Sleep examined the benefits of naps of various lengths and no naps. The results showed that a 10-minute nap produced the most benefit in terms of reduced sleepiness and improved cognitive performance. A nap lasting 30 minutes or longer is more likely to be accompanied by sleep inertia, which is the period of grogginess that sometimes follows sleep.

By now you’re probably thinking about ways to incorporate naps into your daily routine. Keep in mind that getting enough sleep on regular basis is the best way to stay alert and feel your best. But when fatigue sets in, a quick nap can do wonders for your mental and physical stamina.