Are naps actually good for you? Here’s what sleep experts say

Naps have several health benefits, but there are some surprising downsides to napping, according to sleep experts. (Photo: Getty Images)
Naps have several health benefits, but there are some surprising downsides to napping, according to sleep experts. (Photo: Getty Images)

For kids, naps are usually seen as something to be avoided at all costs. In adults, it can feel like a dream to have time for a nap. Still, plenty of adults manage to squeeze in a midday snooze: Data from Pew Research Center show that, on a typical day, one third of adults take a nap.

But while most people have taken a nap at some point, you might be fuzzy on all the facts and benefits about napping. Also, keep this in mind: Sleep experts say naps aren't a good fit for everyone.

So, what's the deal with naps and when should you try to snag one? Here are five facts you need to know.

No. 1: For most people, there's a big benefit to napping.

At a basic level, napping can help you get recharged for the rest of your day. "Napping can provide a bit of respite in the middle of the day, which is helpful to refresh physically and cognitively," Dr. Kelly Waters, a sleep medicine specialist and neurologist with Spectrum Health, tells Yahoo Life.

But a lot of the perks of napping are in-line with the benefits of getting enough sleep on a regular basis, sleep specialist Dr. W. Christopher Winter, author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It, tells Yahoo Life. "It's great if you can get seven to eight hours of sleep a night. But, if you can't, napping provides a good way to fill in those gaps," he says.

That means, if you do it right, napping can help you feel less sleepy, improve your learning capacity afterward, help you remember things better, and help you keep your emotions in check, Winter says.

No. 2: Napping can help support the healing process.

Taking a nap when you're sick is a sign that your immune system is doing its job, Waters says. "When you are sick, your immune cells release chemical messengers to direct the body's response and healing," she explains. "These messengers also make you sleepy."

Taking a nap can also allow your body's immune system to do what it needs to do to help you get better. "As the usual function of sleep is to repair and rejuvenate, it makes sense that when you're sick, sleeping helps to repair and heal," Waters says. Taking a nap (or naps) when you're sick is "especially helpful if your illness is interfering with your ability to get sleep at night," Winter says.

No. 3: There are some health risks linked with naps.

Not all napping is beneficial, however. Naps have been linked with several health issues in adults, including high blood pressure and stroke. One recent study of 358 ,451 people published in the journal Hypertension found that participants who usually napped during the day were 12% more likely to develop high blood pressure and were 24% more likely to have a stroke compared to people who didn't nap. And, if the person was under 60, napping on most days raised the risk of developing high blood pressure by 20% compared to never-nappers.

Longer naps, such as an hour or more at a time, have also been linked to a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease and depression.

But Winter says it's hard to tell if it's the napping itself that's leading to these health conditions or if regular naps are an indicator that someone has an underlying health issue. "Studies have difficulty controlling for those variables," he says.

Still, Winter says, there's what he calls a "sweet spot" of sleep. "There's a difference between being a parent of young children who is taking a nap because they only got four hours of sleep and taking a three-hour nap after getting eight hours the night before," he points out. "Research has shown that when individuals do not get enough sleep, it leads to illness, but when you sleep in excess of what you need, the same can be true."

No. 4: Certain people should avoid napping.

Experts say that naps can be helpful for a lot of people, but not everyone should try to conk out in the middle of the day. "Napping may not be useful if you do not feel refreshed [when you wake up], have difficulties sleeping at night or if you cannot keep a nap to a shorter time frame," Water says.

If you have insomnia, it's really best to avoid naps if you can, she says. "The brain tallies up a daily quota of sleep, and napping chips away at this quota," she says. "There are factors that build during wake time that trigger sleepiness. Napping cuts down on these, and the sleepy message is not as strong — so there is not as big of a push to get to sleep and stay asleep."

Winter acknowledges that it becomes "very attractive" to take a nap if you struggle with insomnia. But, he adds, "you need to be careful with napping after a difficult night, because it could perpetuate the problem."

No. 5: There's such a thing as too long of a nap.

Just like when you sleep at night, your body can move through different sleep stages while you nap. If you sleep for 30 minutes or more, your body can enter slow-wave sleep, which can make you feel drowsy afterward, Winter says. This is called "sleep inertia."

"If you lay down and take a two-hour nap, you may feel worse than you did before," Winter explains. "You start entering cycles of sleep that are difficult to wake up from."

That's why an ideal nap length is 15 to 30 minutes, Waters says. "You want your nap to just help you touch up on your sleep," Winter says.

Ready for a nap? Winter recommends finding a quiet space, taking off your shoes and getting comfortable. "If sleep happens, awesome," he says. "If not, at least you had some nice time to rest."

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