The battle lines are drawn and the divisions deeply entrenched in the ongoing debate over… naps. Advocates see them as refreshing brain boosts and point to successful, famous nappers like Winston Churchill or Albert Einstein. On the con side are those who see naps as lazy or claim to not enjoy them. People who oppose napping often see sleep itself as a time waster, behaving as if those championing slumber of one-third of the day are running a massive scam. After all, they’ll sleep enough when they’re dead. Still, the big question when you’re exhausted is: Can napping replace a good night’s sleep? And if you’re okay with napping, what is the best approach?
To Sleep or Not to Sleep
Sleep is vital. It’s possible to actually die from lack of sleep (after which you’ll presumably get all you can handle). A recent study of sleep-deprived fruit flies suggested the cause of death may be connected to a surge in the gut of molecules called reactive oxidative species (ROS). Still, despite the growing awareness of the value of diet and exercise, far fewer people celebrate the need for rest. Not getting enough sleep can be as unhealthy as smoking––contributing to diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, stroke, and even obesity. Indeed, since being tired releases a hormone called ghrelin that makes you hungry and people who are obese often have trouble sleeping, this action can trigger a vicious cycle of weight gain.
To function optimally, the average adult needs between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. In fact, doctors and scientists recruited by The National Sleep Foundation concluded getting less will damage both health and performance at work. While some claim to do fine on only four or five hours of sleep, when those people are studied, they are often outperformed by subjects who enjoy sufficient sleep. This is partly because every night your body experiences four distinct cycles. The last is the best known––the rapid eye movement or REM cycle. This is when you are dreaming and your brain is at its most active. It takes eight hours of sleep to get the recommended five cycles per night. It’s unlikely that you’ll enter the important REM stage during a short nap––one reason it can’t replace a full night’s sleep.
If you get close to the recommended amount of sleep but you are still tired, a brief nap can help your brain recharge. One trick is to drink five ounces of coffee before bedding down. Because it takes about half an hour before caffeine takes full effect, this strategy can prevent over-napping and the sluggishness that often occurs when you sleep for over an hour. Otherwise, a cup of coffee following a nap can restore energy and focus. Longer naps may allow you to enter REM and make up for nights of insufficient sleep. However, the notion that napping for a couple of hours a few times a day can replace a solid night’s sleep has been largely discredited. Polyphasic sleep can open you up to a host of health issues. Plus, naps can impact your sleep drive––the built-in need to go to sleep that most people feel sometime after sunset.
Studies have shown consistently that “catching up” on sleep during the weekend and napping during the week do not make up for sleep debt, the accumulated effects of lack of sleep. If you’re getting two hours less sleep per night than what you need, then in a week your sleep debt will be 14 hours!
The key is to make sleep a priority. Limit caffeine consumption in the late afternoon and alcohol consumption in the evening. Put electronic devices away one to two hours before bedtime. Take a warm bath or shower, sip some soothing tea, and read a (printed) book. Go to sleep in a cool dark room, and try to keep a consistent sleep-wake schedule even during your days off. There are no easy fixes, but treating sleep with the importance it deserves will actually make it easier to achieve your fitness and professional goals.
Written by John Bankston
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- Why Napping Can’t Replace a Good Night’s Rest