For children, naps are usually seen as something to be avoided at all costs. In adults, it can be a dream to have time for a nap. Still, many adults manage to nap in the afternoon: Data from the Pew Research Center shows that on a typical day, a third of adults take a nap.
But while most people have taken a nap at some point, you may be vague about all the facts and benefits of napping. Also keep this in mind: Sleep experts say naps aren’t for everyone.
So, what’s the deal with naps and when should you try to get one? Here are five facts you need to know.
No. 1: For most people, there is a big benefit to napping.
On a basic level, taking a nap can help you recharge for the rest of your day. “Napping can provide a bit of rest in the middle of the day, which is helpful for a physical and cognitive refresh,” Dr. Kelly Waters, a sleep medicine specialist and neurologist at Spectrum Health, told Yahoo Life.
But many of the benefits 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, taking a nap is a great way to fill those gaps,” he says.
That means, if you do it right, taking a nap can help you feel less sleepy, improve your learning ability afterwards, remember things better, and help you manage your emotions, 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’re 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 also allows your body’s immune system to do what it needs to do to help you get better. “Since the usual function of sleep is to recover and rejuvenate, it makes sense that when you’re sick, sleeping helps to recover and heal,” says Waters. Taking a nap (or naps) when you’re sick is “particularly helpful if your illness is interfering with your ability to sleep at night,” Winter says.
No. 3: There are some health risks associated with napping.
However, not all naps are beneficial. Naps have been linked to several health problems in adults, including high blood pressure and stroke. A recent survey of 358,451 people published in the journal hypertension found that participants who habitually napped during the day were 12% more likely to develop high blood pressure and 24% more likely to have a stroke compared with people who didn’t sleep. And if the person was under 60, naps on most days increased the risk of developing high blood pressure by 20% compared to never naps.
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 say whether it’s the napping itself that leads to these health problems or whether regular naps are an indicator that someone has an underlying health problem. “Studies struggle to control 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 naps because they’ve only slept for four hours, and a three-hour nap after they’ve had eight hours the night before,” he explains. “Research has shown that when individuals don’t get enough sleep, it leads to illness, but when you sleep more than you need, the same can be true.”
No. 4: Certain people should avoid naps.
Experts say naps can be beneficial for many people, but not everyone should try to stop in the middle of the day. “Napping may not be helpful if you’re not feeling refreshed [when you wake up]having trouble sleeping at night or if you can’t sustain a nap to a shorter time frame,” says Water.
If you have insomnia, it’s really best to avoid naps if you can, she says. “The brain corresponds to a daily quota of sleep and sleep chips away from this quota,” she says. “There are factors that build up during waking and cause sleepiness. Napping reduces these, and the sleepy message isn’t as strong — so there’s not as much pressure to fall asleep and stay asleep.”
Winter acknowledges that it becomes “very appealing” to take a nap when you’re struggling with insomnia. But, he adds, “you have to be careful with naps after a rough night because it can perpetuate the problem.”
No. 5: There is such a thing as taking too long a nap.
Just like when you sleep at night, your body can go through different stages of sleep during your nap. Sleeping for 30 minutes or more can put your body into slow-wave sleep, which can make you feel sleepy afterward, Winter says. This is called “sleep inertia”.
“If you lie down and take a two-hour nap, you may feel worse than before,” explains Winter. “You start going into sleep cycles that you have a hard time waking from.”
That’s why an ideal length of a nap is 15 to 30 minutes, Waters says. “You want your nap to just help you update your sleep,” says Winter.
Ready for a nap? Winter recommends finding a quiet place, taking off your shoes and feeling comfortable. “When sleep happens, great,” he says. “If not, at least you had a good rest.”
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