To Nap or Not?

Research shows there are many benefits to napping. But if you have chronic insomnia, they may not be such a good thing.

siesta2How I envy people who can nap! My husband, for instance, no sooner announces his intention and stretches out on the sofa than he’s down for the count. Or people I see on planes, trains, buses, and park benches. They settle down in their seats and then—bam!—their heads are lolling on their chests.

“That’s talent!” said an insomnia sufferer I interviewed for my book, and I agree. Drift into slumber amid the hubbub of people loading suitcases into luggage bins, or among strangers on a beach? I couldn’t do that in a million years. It’s rare that I can even catch a few minutes’ midday shut-eye within the quiet, protective walls of my home.

Benefits of Napping

But quite a bit of research suggests I’d be better off if I could. Not only does midday napping seem to make people more alert, but it also enhances thinking and memory. For example, in a study of medical residents, subjects that napped an average of just 8 ½ minutes were sharper and had fewer attention failures than residents who remained awake.

Longer naps appear to be even better if the aim is to consolidate memories. A study that compared three groups—subjects that napped 10 minutes, others that napped 60 minutes, and others that stayed awake—found that upon awakening the nap-takers recalled more of the information learned before the naps than did those who remained awake. The memory retention in the 10-minute nap-takers was temporary and disrupted by the learning of new information. But the 60-minute nap-takers were able to hold on to more material learned before napping despite the interference of new learning.

Napping and Insomnia

The benefits of napping sound fabulous. So why is it so hard for me and many others who suffer from insomnia to seize a few winks during the day?

The central nervous system has both alerting and inhibiting forces, and current thinking holds that on the arousal side, insomniacs are cranked up a notch too high. Even though we might feel tired and dull as mud, these overactive alerting forces make it harder for us to sleep both night and day.

Nor are naps—especially long naps—recommended for people who have trouble sleeping at night. Sleep drive, which builds higher with every waking moment and finally propels us into slumber, diminishes if we descend into deep sleep, which may occur during longer naps. So for people inclined to insomnia, the experts generally recommend cutting naps out altogether or restricting them to 30 minutes.

Recommended or ill-advised, naps are mostly out of the question for the likes of me for now. But I’m holding out hope that perhaps in my dotage I’ll be nodding off with my peers for little catnaps during the day. Aging is never a picnic, but the thought of being able to nap is a pleasant one.

Do you take naps? In what ways do they seem to help?

Medical Residents and a Midday Nap

Deep Sleep During a Daytime Nap

Author: Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

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