Nap time is the new coffee break. Here’s how to make the most of it.

Nap time is the new coffee break. Here’s how to make the most of it.

There are many habits I’ve gained while working from home: snacking when desired, taking the dog for a midmorning walk, talking to myself and settling in for a daily nap. That last one will be especially painful to give up if or when I return to an office; my naps have become essential afternoon pick-me-ups. Why do my naps feel so needed and so revitalizing? And will I have to live without? I spoke to experts to get their advice.
The desire to nap

There are two biological processes that contribute to daily drowsiness, says Sara Mednick, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California at Irvine and author of “Take a Nap! Change Your Life.”

The first system is the circadian: It prompts you to stay awake when it’s light out and asleep when it’s dark. In the middle of the day, it causes the hormone cortisol to start decreasing from its morning high and your core body temperature to slightly dip; losing heat helps you fall and stay asleep. The second is the homeostatic: It makes you sleepier the longer you’ve been awake. As the day progresses, it continually increases your “sleep pressure,” causing you to have a growing need for sleep. Together, at midday, these create “kind of a perfect storm that makes people tired,” Mednick says.

However, not all people are equally affected by these processes. “Some people really experience it, and some people don’t,” she says. And, of course, not everyone can or does give into it. A 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center found that, on a typical day, one-third of U.S. adults nap.

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Nap time is the new coffee break. Here’s how to make the most of it.

Needing a nap is “a reflection that you haven’t gotten sufficient sleep at night to address your body’s need for sleep,” says Lawrence Epstein, past president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and clinical director for sleep medicine at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. And chronically missing out on sleep is nothing but trouble. “It affects performance, concentration, mood,” Epstein says. It also “affects physiological processes involved in maintaining good health,” he adds, noting links to obesity, hypertension and heart disease.
Pros and cons of naps

For many people who are sleep-deprived, a short shut-eye session is the ticket, Mednick says. “Your mood gets better, your creativity, your perceptual processing, your memory processing.”

The benefits of napping show up in study after study. Mednick has found that nappers perform as well on a pattern-recognition task as people who have slept overnight. She has found that naps enhance creative problem-solving. Naps can boost and restore brain power. Toddlers who nap express more joy. Adults nappers can tolerate frustration longer and feel less impulsive. Naps may help protect older people from cognitive decline and dementia. Runners can use naps to improve endurance. People who nap once or twice a week have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Memory is better after a nap. And on it goes.

On the other hand, many people can’t tolerate naps and feel groggy when they wake up. This may be because they go into heavy, slow-wave sleep, which is the deepest stage of sleep, making it difficult to return to the waking world. Naps can also disrupt that night’s sleep. “Naps tend to be kind of a double-edged sword,” Epstein says. “If you’re sleeping during the daytime, you’re going to sleep less at night.”

Daytime sleepiness can also be a symptom of an underlying condition or sleeping disorder. If you’re often napping or feeling sleepy during the day, try to extend your sleep at night. If that doesn’t help, “you should probably be checking with your doctor or a sleep specialist,” Epstein says.