The Power (and Pitfalls) of Napping

After reading my recent column on healthy sleep, a helpful reader wrote to remind me to mention the restorative power of the daytime nap.

The siesta is more common closer to the equator though many Canadians find that a midday nap gives them the energy to get through the rest of each day. Many of us though don’t have the luxury to sleep during the day.

That doesn’t mean involuntary napping doesn’t happen. Anyone who is sleep-deprived – or suffers from a sleep disorder such as obstructive sleep apnea – may have such severe daytime sleepiness that they can easily nod off when they should be alert.

The student who has stayed up studying past midnight may take an involuntary nap during a lecture. They may not even notice they have fallen asleep until they see their notes trail off the page.

The doctor who has stayed up all night for a delivery may struggle to stay awake at a school concert. My rule of thumb for a school performance is this. If I’m feeling refreshed at the end of the show, I must have fallen asleep.

The worst time to nap is when your hands are on the wheel of an automobile. So if you are feeling sleepy, stay out of the driver’s seat. You may be as dangerous as a drunk driver.

If it takes less than 5 minutes for you to fall asleep during the day, you may be suffering from a sleep deficit, and the need for a nap is your body and brain telling you that you need more sleep. The nap is just a short-term solution if you continue the habit of sleeping too late or waking up too early.

If you need a nap, it’s best to do so early in the day – either the morning or in the early afternoon. Naps taken later in the day can perpetuate a bad sleep-wake cycle by making it harder for you to fall asleep at your appropriate bedtime.

As our brains and bodies cycle through natural rhythms throughout the day, we need a break – though not necessarily a nap – every 2 hours or so. When you feel restless or a little unfocussed during the midmorning or midafternoon, you may want to try a change of pace. Take up a different activity, take a short walk, stretch, meditate or listen to some music. If you’re not sleep-deprived, you should feel refreshed – without the need for a nap.

If you are suffering from persistent or severe daytime sleepiness, see your doctor. You may need further testing to rule out a sleep disorder, such as obstructive sleep apnea, or a medical problem affecting the quality of your sleep.

A warning for students: I didn’t realize – until I returned to the lecture hall on the stage rather than in the audience – that I could see every face in the hall, including the one who was nodding off.

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About Davidicus Wong

I am a family physician. I write a weekly newspaper column, Healthwise for the Vancouver Courier, Burnaby Now, Royal City Record and Richmond News.
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