person taking a daytime nap

Daytime Naps Boost Your Heart and Brain Health, Reduce Stress and Much More

If you often find yourself dozing off at your desk in the middle of the afternoon, or driving with your windows down in hopes that the fresh air will keep you awake during your commute home, you’re not alone. The American Sleep Association has done the research and the results are in- America is a sleep-deprived nation. Daytime naps could be the fix.

According to the ASA, more than 35 percent of adults in the United States report getting less than the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep every night, and fifty to seventy million adults have a sleep disorder [1].

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Daytime Naps Are Good For You

Sleep plays a vital role in the function of your brain as well as many other important body systems. Minor sleep deprivation may sound like a trivial problem, but even a small lack of sleep can accumulate over time and have serious consequences to your health. 

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One reason for this is because chronic sleep deprivation is associated with increased activity of your sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system. This system is beneficial when you’re exercising or trying to catch the bus, but constant activation puts your body under chronic stress. This can affect your metabolism and your circadian rhythm, and cause you to have chronic systemic inflammation [2].

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Chronic inflammation is associated with diabetes and cardiovascular disease, arthritis, general body pain, depression and anxiety, gastrointestinal problems, weight gain, and frequent infections [3].

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Sleep deprivation can also result in mood disorders, as well as memory, cognitive, and performance deficits in otherwise healthy adults, and generally lower their quality of life [2].

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Naps Could be The Solution

Most of us abandoned the midday nap by the time we left preschool, but health experts are now suggesting that the childhood habit could be beneficial for adults, too. For many Americans, getting a full night’s sleep is a near-impossible task, but adding a nap into your daily routine could have far-reaching health benefits.

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Daytime Naps Are Good for Your Brain

Many of the world’s brightest minds and most celebrated leaders, including Albert Einstein and Sir Winston Churchill, were known to include naps as a regular part of their daily routine, and scientists have demonstrated that a sixty to ninety-minute nap could be just as beneficial to your brain as a full night’s sleep.

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A 2010 study from Harvard University found that a nap- even a short one- can improve your memory and learning capabilities [5].

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Naps Help Your Heart

In a study that appeared in the BMJ Journal, Heart, researchers found that people who napped even just twice per week had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), and CVD events. Participants in the study were generally healthy individuals between the age of 35 to 75, and were monitored over the course of five years. 

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155 cardiac events took place during that time period. The researchers discovered that participants who napped at least twice each week had a 48 percent lower risk of having a heart attack, stroke, or heart failure, compared with those who did not nap at all [6,7].

They did not, however, find a link between nap duration and risk of a CVD event, which could mean that even a short nap could have benefits for your heart.

Yue Leng, Ph.D., and Dr. Kristine Yaffe, of the University of California, San Francisco, commented on the findings.

“While the exact physiological pathways linking daytime napping to [cardiovascular disease] risk is not clear,” they said. “[this research] contributes to the ongoing debate on the health implications of napping and suggests that it might not only be the duration, but also the frequency that matters.”[7]   .

Daytime Naps Can Reduce Stress

Bill Anthony, an American psychologist, and director of the Harvard University Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center says that napping helps to significantly reduce cortisol, the hormone responsible for stress [8]. 

The reason for this goes back to your sympathetic nervous system that was mentioned earlier. This fight-or-flight response evolved so that early humans and other mammals react quickly to life-threatening situations. Unfortunately, in today’s modern age, your body can overreact to non-life-threatening situations like a traffic jam, a problem at work, or family stress, and activate this system.

When your brain senses stress, it initiates the release of epinephrine (aka- adrenaline) into your bloodstream. This, in turn, causes the release of cortisol to keep your body revved up and on high alert. This is useful if you’re running from a bear, but can have negative health consequences if your body remains in this state consistently [9].

Better Than Coffee

There are many more benefits to regular napping. I quick snooze in the middle of your day can improve alertness and reaction time, help you to be less impulsive, and improve your tolerance to frustration.

“Frustration tolerance is one facet of emotion regulation,” says University of Michigan doctoral student Jennifer Goldschmied. “I suspect sleeping gives us more distance [from an emotional event] — it’s not just about the passing of time.” [10]

An afternoon nap has also been shown to be better than caffeine at improving perceptual learning (like doing a word-recall test), and memory consolidation [10].  

How to Make the Most Out of Your Daytime Nap

Not everyone has time for a ninety-minute nap in the middle of the day, but there are still benefits to be gained from even just a short snooze. Most experts agree that unless you are sleep deprived, no more than twenty to thirty minutes is necessary, and any more than that could leave you feeling groggier, or interfere with your nighttime sleep [11].

The timing of your nap is also important. Napping after three in the afternoon could interfere with your ability to fall asleep that night, so aim to do it in the early afternoon. You should try to find a quiet, dark place with a comfortable temperature and little distraction to facilitate sleeping [11].

Finally, when your nap is over, allow yourself a few minutes to wake up before you attempt to do anything that requires a quick response. Just like when you wake up in the morning, you may need a bit of time to be fully alert [11].

  1. ‘Sleep and Sleep Disorder Statistics’ Sleep Association
  2. ‘Short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption’ Pubmed Goran Medic, Micheline Wille, Michiel EH Hemels. Published in 2017.
  3. ‘Chronic Inflammation’ Pubmed
  4. ‘Sleep helps learning, memory’ Harvard Health Harvey B. Simon, M.D. Published February 15, 2012
  5. ‘Association of napping with incident cardiovascular events in a prospective cohort study’ Heart Nadine Häusler, Jose Haba-Rubio, Raphael Heinzer, Pedro Marques-Vidal.
  6. Daytime napping 1–2 times a week may benefit heart health Medical News Today Ana Sandoiu. Published September 11, 2019
  7. ‘The secret to taking successful naps Aleteia Published July 22, 2018.
  8. ‘The science of naps’ APA Kirsten Weir. Published in 2016.
  9. ‘Napping: Do’s and don’ts for healthy adults’ Mayo Clinic
Brittany Hambleton
Freelance Contributor
Brittany is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition and a writer’s certificate from the University of Western Ontario. She enjoyed a stint as a personal trainer and is an avid runner. Brittany loves to combine running and traveling, and has run numerous races across North America and Europe. She also loves chocolate more than anything else… the darker, the better!
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