Sneaking a little midday snooze feels unspeakably indulgent. While the rest of the world is hard at work or dealing with the drudgery of household chores, you’re snuggled up in your own cozy dream world. Whether it lasts a few minutes or a full REM cycle, boy, does it feel good to get away.
But naps aren’t always full of fuzzy sheep. Sometimes, you can’t drop off, or you fall so deeply asleep that waking feels like fighting the all-consuming pull of a black hole. No wonder scientists are divided on the health benefits of a dozy afternoon.
Friends and family members may suggest tips for hacking your way to better sleep, but what does the science say on napping? And is there really a best way for how to take a nap? We took a look at the evidence.
The health effects of midday sleep
Ideally, everyone would get a perfect eight hours. We would all wake up like we imagine our ancestors once did, without an alarm, relying on only the pink streamers of early sunlight and the crowing of the birds to guide us back into the waking world. But that rarely happens.
In the United States, 15 million Americans work the graveyard shift, which puts them at higher risk for all manner of disease, including obesity and diabetes. And daytime workers have their own problems, including insomnia, poor time management, and shallow sleep. Artificial light, especially the blue light that illuminates our phones, doesn’t help either—it encourages us to stay up far later than our candle-loving ancestors did.
Naturally, catching up on sleep during the day has been heralded as one solution to our snoozy problems. Startups sell special workplace pods that would allow employees to take 20-minute naps in the office with relative privacy. The Google search “Can I nap at work?” turns up 39 million hits. The results are mostly advice on how to take a nap, with some legal advice on whether you can demand an in-office siesta (or conversely, if you can fire a napping employee) sprinkled in.
However, some research suggests that napping could have a dark side. Long daytime naps are associated with increased risk of death, particularly from respiratory illness, according to a longitudinal study in the United Kingdom that controlled for factors like age, weight, and income. But this study, which spooked many a reader in 2014, showed a correlation, not a causation. While more research still needs to be done, experts say that instead of naps causing disease, it’s possible that people who are developing respiratory conditions simply take more naps. Similar studies have found correlations with other health issues. For example, elderly Japanese people were more likely to nap regularly if they smoked or struggled with insomnia, among other problematic health factors. Napping didn’t cause these problems, per se, but it didn’t appear to fix them either.
Studies like these rightly complicate the notion of napping as cure-all, but other research has shown many benefits to naps—especially short ones. For example, over the course of a day, people’s ability to respond to stimuli—like an email from a coworker—naturally dwindles. A 2014 study in the journal Nature Neuroscience showed that people who took a 30-minute midday nap paused this decline in attention, and those who snoozed for 60 minutesactually reversed some of that day’s deterioration. Different studies have shown other positive impacts of catnaps. For people with depression, napping seems to help refocus attention away from bad experiences. Napping can assist airline pilots and their flight crew to get through grueling shifts with their mental states relatively intact. One small study on the general population showed a reduction in pain sensitivity after a midday doze.
Just tell me how to take a nap already!
Here’s your new naptime mantra: “Keep it brief.” While everyone you know swears by a certain magic number (7 minutes! No, 17 minutes!), the National Sleep Foundation has this to say: “a short nap”—say, 20 minutes—“can help to improve mood, alertness and performance,” without side effects like grogginess.
When you lie down for those 20 minutes of shuteye, even if you’re really tired, it can be hard to actually fall asleep. To help, try to simulate nighttime conditions. Reduce light with a mask, blackout curtains, or—if for some strange reason your office actually invested in one—a workplace nap “pod.”
If you still can’t convince your body it’s time to zonk out, try listening to some music before you go to sleep. One study, published in a 2017 edition of the journal Sleep Medicine, showed that listening to music before napping helped patients sleep for more of the allotted napping time. They were also more alert than non-musical nappers when they woke up.
Feeling really experimental? Try napping after drinking coffee. Several studies have shown that if you caffeinate before as short nap of 15 to 20 minutes, you’ll wake feeling even perkier than usual, because caffeine takes about 20 minutes to kick in. As Vox put it, “coffee naps are better than coffee or naps.”
Whatever you do, don’t try to replace your evening z’s with napping. While it has plenty of benefits, 20 minutes of shuteye in the afternoon is nothing like a good night’s rest.