Almost alone among mammals, human beings break their daily routine into phases, one for being awake and another for sleeping. This is what is termed monophasic sleep. Most mammals are polyphasic, and they sleep on and off, both day and night.
Human sleep habits may be more culturally than physiologically derived, as some cultures still emphasis afternoon naps (or siestas), and many famous movers and shakers, including Winston Churchill, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Napoleon, Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison, relied on daily naps. The very young and the elderly also rely on naps. Fault them?
As the United States becomes more and more a nation of the sleep-deprived, we may want to rethink our compulsion to push, push, push but sleep less, less, less. In fact, we may want to reconsider the whole issue of napping. Maybe the Europeans have it right when they take a break to nap during the workday.
The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) breaks down napping into three types:
- Planned napping, also called preparatory napping, is almost like forced napping. You force yourself to take a nap even if you’re not sleepy. This is sometimes done to stay up later than normal, for instance.
- Emergency napping is essential when drowsiness will interfere with your driving a vehicle or operating dangerous machinery.
- Habitual napping follows a set routine and a set schedule. For instance, you take a nap the same time each day, whether by choice or by natural need.
If napping will interfere with a solid, uninterrupted night’s sleep, then you no doubt should avoid napping, but for the rest of us, naps can be considered essential in keeping us alert and functioning fully. However, naps over 20 or 30 minutes in duration can be counter-productive. The best rejuvenation seems to come when naps last 20 minutes or less. After that, prolonged napping can have the opposite effect and cause grogginess. This grogginess is technically termed sleep inertia.
Among other benefits of napping, the NSF lists restoring alertness, enhancing performance and reducing mistakes and accidents. Naps also can be like mini-vacations, providing rest and relaxation.
In the U.S., however, napping still carries some social stigmas, the biggest of which is that many people view nappers as prone to laziness and napping in general as an indication of a lack of ambition. (Tell that to Napoleon and the others.)
So, yes, for some of us — perhaps more than care to admit it — naps can be an essential part of being a fully functioning human being. The problem, however, is finding the time and place for a nap. If you work a 9-to-5 in an office, your only shot at a nap might be in your car at lunch or during a break. And cars’ interiors aren’t always conducive to sleep.
The bigger issue is getting a good night’s sleep. You should follow good sleep hygiene rules, and if those don’t help, then you should seek professional advice. If you suspect you have a sleep disorder, then waste no time in setting up an appointment at a sleep institute such as The Snoring Center.
Otherwise, if you can work in a 20-minute nap, go for it.