How Can I Sleep Better?
Welcome to the next entry in the “How Can I Sleep Better?” blog! We’ve covered a lot over the past few weeks, and I think it’s time we address naps. We’ve talked about some of the mechanisms of sleep, things that can hinder your sleep, and things that can help you sleep. Now we’ll discuss what exactly a nap does for you, when to take them, the potential risk, how long you should take a nap, and why. Are you ready?
I know some of you may be thinking “Kevin, naps for my kids. I’m an adult. I don’t have time to sleep. I have things to do, dinner to cook, shows to watch, and the world to dominate. I don’t have time for naps.” Before you go all Pinky and the Brain on me, 10 points if you get that reference, let's break some things down.
If you have children or have been around children for any length of time, you’ve probably seen what happens when they don’t get enough sleep. Whether that's because they didn’t get their 10-12 hours of sleep the night before or they missed their daily nap, their behavior typically changes drastically. They become moody, difficult to please, cry about how the cat looked at them funny, and anything else you could possibly imagine. Given what we know about sleep and its relationship with emotional management, which we have discussed in earlier blog entries, it should make sense that when they are sleep deprived, their ability to manage their emotions is impaired. At such a young age, they already have very little idea of how to manage their emotions so adding an impaired brain into the mix is recipe for disaster. As an adult, this is still the case. Even if your emotional management is better than that of your average 2-year-old, your brain does not function well when sleep-deprived, and just like a nap can help improve the mood of a cranky toddler, it can do the same for anyone! It’s important to note that taking naps to supplement consistent sleep deprivation at night is not going to “hack” anything. We’ll cover sleep cycles in more depth in a later entry but the idea that you can take a 2-hour nap every so often and be ok is just not true given the available data. You need to go through the entirety of your sleep cycle uninterrupted to get the best quality sleep and the more you fragment your sleep, the worse sleep quality you will have. Naps are something to be used sparingly and should also be used as an indicator of sleep deprivation if you feel like they are necessary all the time. Similar to caffeine, the timing and dose, in this case, length, of the nap are important
So, when should you nap? That’s a great question! For this, I’ll speak mainly to the teens and adults reading this. If your toddler is reading this, stop what you’re doing and record it because you could make some serious cash. When you should take a nap largely revolves around when you go to bed. If you’re someone who goes to bed between 10 and midnight, you probably should stop napping once 4pm hits. The reason for this is adenosine, something I mentioned in a previous blog post. To recap, adenosine is a chemical in your brain that begins to build up the moment you wake up and it promotes healthy sleep pressure. The more adenosine that builds up, the more difficult it is to stay awake. You need that healthy sleep pressure so you can get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep at night. The reason you don’t want to sleep too close to bedtime is that sleep releases that natural, healthy sleep pressure, and therefore makes it more difficult to get to sleep. Think of it like a pressure cooker and a nap is like pushing the top to release thatsteam. That steam is adenosine and it’s precious so keep it ç≥÷around!
“Ok, so I can’t take naps too close to bedtime but how long should my naps be? I can take a 4-hour nap and feel great but sometimes I can sleep for an hour and wake up feeling groggy.” This is all too common because of something called sleep inertia. Sleep inertia is directly tied to the stages of sleep but more specifically the stage of sleep you wake up in. Pop quiz! How long does it take you, on average, to go through each stage of sleep? If you said 90 minutes, you’re right! Sleep inertia often occurs because you are waking up in stages 3 or 4 of NREM, which, if you recall, is slow-wave sleep. The slow-wave nature of stages 3 and 4 indicate that brain activity is quite low whereas REM sleep has vastly different brain activity. When you wake up feeling refreshed, or at least relatively awake, you are waking up from REM sleep. There are 2-time frames in which naps are best and they each serve a different function. 20-30 minute naps are great for a quick burst of energy while the other recommended length of time to take a nap is 90-minutes. This allows you to go through a full cycle of sleep and is more restful than a 20-30 minute nap. Keep in mind the length of time I’m mentioning is the time you are actually asleep, not how long you’re in bed so maybe set an alarm for 35 or 40 minutes to give yourself time to get to sleep and still hit that sweet spot.
In short, don’t shy away from naps! They are helpful but can be a double-edged sword. Be mindful of when you sleep to avoid releasing too much of that healthy sleep pressure and how long you sleep so you can avoid sleep inertia. It’s also important to note that taking a nap or even resting does not mean you are being unproductive. Sleep and rest are productive in a different way than doing laundry. You need sleep to be your best self and you need rest to keep yourself centered. Don’t abandon those key aspects of total wellness because you feel like you have to be something. You are doing something! You’re taking care of yourself and that’s most important.
With that, I will say thank you for reading another entry and I hope you utilize naps to work for you instead of against you!
Fun fact for your next party: Your brain needs sleep in order to facilitate learning and have the best chance to retain information. Not getting adequate sleep, specifically in stages 3 and 4, greatly impairs your brain's ability to receive new information. It needs adequate sleep before learning to get ready for information and it also needs it after learning because sleep hits the “save” button on what you’ve learned. The transition from short-term memory to long-term memory in the brain's cortex is facilitated by sleep!