Nap Time? Science Says Your Body Might Benefit From One

Ari Cofer Fact Checked
A photo of a couple napping together in bed
© Lucas Ottone / Stocksy United

Whether you work from home, are on your lunch break or are staying in for the weekend, one thing’s certain — that mid-to-late afternoon crash is real. 

Naps seem to have judgment around them, with ideas suggesting those who nap are lazy, unmotivated and ruining their sleep schedule. Napping doesn’t define your character, and when done correctly, it doesn’t ruin your sleep schedule. 

It turns out there’s a physiological reason why your body might want to give into that midday crash — and why it might be better to give in instead of drinking that extra cup of coffee to push through. 

Why the body gets so tired in the late afternoon 

Most of us have heard about the body’s circadian rhythm, or the physical, mental and behavioral changes that we experience throughout our day. Our circadian rhythm, informed by our circadian clock (aka body clock), can affect our eating habits, how our hormones are released, our body temperature and more. When you hit that midday wall, it’s not always because you have poor sleep habits; once you get to a lower point in your circadian rhythm, it’s normal for your body to feel tired and crave rest.  

“There is a circadian dip in our alertness around 3 p.m. which is a part of normal human physiology,” says Dr. Nathaniel Watson, co-director of the UW Medicine Sleep Center. “So, taking a nap at this time takes advantage of this alertness dip to facilitate sleep.” 

How naps can help you feel better during the day 

In short, a good nap can help you feel rejuvenated, like hitting a restart button in the middle of the day. But a midday nap has more benefits than just feeling better — sometimes, it helps your body function better. 

It’s also known that getting good sleep generally helps with memory. But, it turns out that your associative memory — like the ability to put a name to a face — also benefits from naps. This idea is supported by studies that show that the hippocampus, or the place in the brain responsible for long-term memory or memory retrieval, is supported by napping

Napping can also help with your overall cognitive function, help you be a better learner, and one study even showed that people who napped once or twice a week had a lower chance of having a cardiovascular event

Recommended napping schedule

Everyone’s body is different, and some people have different sleep-wake schedules than others. Because of this, there won’t be a one-size-fits-all answer for the best way to nap. 

However, while we wish we could say a two-hour midday nap is the standard, it’s important for your body to know the difference between a quick recharge and bedtime. 

Optimal nap duration is 15-20 minutes,” says Watson. “You get the same benefits of napping, with none of the ‘sleep inertia’ that can cause grogginess when you wake up from a longer nap.” 

Watson says that when you have a longer nap, the body has to wake up from a deeper stage of sleep, NREM stage 3. This causes the all-too-common feeling of fatigue and disorientation that comes with a nap that goes too long. 

It’s also important to remember that a nap is a supplement, not a sleep replacement. If you’re not sleeping well at nighttime, trying to “catch up” by taking a three or four-hour nap during the day isn’t doing your body any good. 

“Napping can help with daytime alertness and reduce sleepiness during the day, but since recommended nap duration is fairly short, it can’t fully substitute for a healthy night of sleep or pay off a sleep debt,” says Watson. “I suggest people sleep seven or more hours per night to support optimal health.” 

Be mindful of your sleep 

While napping has benefits, pay attention to how often you feel fatigued and how much sleep you get each night. If you take 15-to-20 minute naps throughout the week but still feel tired and groggy, something more might be happening.  

Try talking to your doctor about your sleepiness — they might recommend a sleep study or other techniques like mindfulness to make sure the sleep that you’re getting at night (or during the day) is true, restful sleep. Mental health conditions like anxiety can also wake you up at night, leaving you daydreaming about your bed during your afternoon meeting. 

Most importantly, listen to your body — not the voice in society that says it’s lazy or unproductive to nap. Not only is it beneficial for your brain, memory and mood, but sometimes, it’s nice to just take a little bit of time to yourself to recharge.