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Brandon Peters, M.D.

30 Days to Better Sleep: Don't Take Naps

By January 21, 2013

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What's the harm in taking a nap? If you have difficulty sleeping at night, you may do well to cut out napping during the day. How do you know if your nap is harming your ability to sleep?

There are plenty of people who can get by taking a nap during the day with no ill effects on that night's sleep. Unfortunately, there are others who will struggle falling asleep as a result. The ability to sleep is dependent on two factors: homeostatic sleep drive and circadian rhythm. Sleep drive builds throughout the day: the longer you stay awake, the stronger the desire to sleep. It is similar to hunger and the desire to eat: the longer you go without eating, the hungrier you become. If sleep overnight is a feast, naps during the day are snacks. By eating a snack, you will be less hungry for the feast. By taking a nap, there is a weaker desire and ability to fall asleep and stay asleep overnight.

Many people with insomnia will be unable to sleep during the day, including during naps. These individuals are "tired but wired," with complaints of fatigue, exhaustion, and diminished energy, but a notable inability to sleep during the day if given the opportunity. An insomniac will lie down to rest and spend the time awake. If sleep is obtained, even briefly, it can be very disruptive to sleep at night. There are others who will find it easy to fall asleep during the day, with little impact on the ability to sleep at night.

If you are getting an inadequate total number of hours of sleep at night, failing to meet your sleep needs, the difference may be partially made up with naps. As an example, if you need 7 hours of sleep and only get 6 hours, an hour long nap during the day may effectively make up the difference. When sleep is of poor quality due to sleep apnea, naps may also be a common occurrence. In addition, naps can be an important coping mechanism in conditions such as narcolepsy. Naps can also be very helpful to prevent or provide relief from drowsy driving.

There are societies in the world where naps are integrated into the daily schedule. This "siesta" time takes advantage of the natural lull in wakefulness that occurs in the early to mid-afternoon, just after lunch. Is it better to avoid naps altogether?

If you are struggling to sleep at night, especially if you have difficulty falling asleep, you should cut out naps during the day. This will increase your drive to sleep and make it easier to fall and stay asleep. If you have an underlying sleep disorder, or suspect you might, naps may occur commonly and may suggest a need for evaluation. Naps can be a wonderful, refreshing opportunity to take a break in the day, incorporated into lifestyles and societies around the world. However, for those who fight with insomnia and have difficulty sleeping at night, it may be time to discover a simple way to sleep better: don't take naps.

Check out the entire series, "How to Sleep Better in 30 Days."

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