In praise of the afternoon nap

cat nap green red

by Carolyn Thomas    @HeartSisters

I have learned a valuable skill since my heart attack.  I have learned how to take naps.

Because I’ve never been able to nap until now, I used to be envious of my son, Ben, who is a world-class napper.  That boy started sleeping 11 hours a night by the age of five weeks, and has been looking for opportunities to snooze ever since: anywhere, any time, sitting up, lying down, on the plane, or (his favourite) stretched out on the couch after Sunday brunch.

Ben has been on the right track all along, according to scientists reporting in the Journal of Applied Physiology.(1)  Their report on the cardiovascular benefits of the afternoon nap suggests that a siesta habit is associated with a remarkable 37% reduction in coronary disease mortality, possibly because of reduced cardiovascular stress associated with daytime sleep. Apparently, the initial period of time between lights out and sleep onset is associated with the largest acute reduction in blood pressure during afternoon siestas.

Like most mammals, humans experience two periods of what sleep scientists call ‘forceful, persuasive sleepiness’: around 2-4 am and then again at 1-3 pm. An afternoon nap, like the tradtional siestas of warm-weather countries, allows you to grab some of the benefits of the sleep cycle without committing to a full eight hours.

Ransom Riggs
7 Simple Rules For How to Take A Nap
by Ransom Riggs – June 20, 2008 – 10:14 AM
sleep.jpgBirds do it, bees do it (we think), even educated monkeys do it. So let’s do it, people. Let’s fall asleep. (The musical portion of this blog is over; thanks for indulging.) But seriously: we’ve talked about the whys of taking naps on the blog before — they improve mood, creativity, memory function, heart health, and so much else — but never, to my knowledge, have we discussed how to take a nap. In fact, whenever we write about naps, we always get a few comments from people claiming they’re unable to nap during the day; they just can’t fall asleep, or when they do nap they wake up groggy and unable to work. In that case, read on, my sleepy friends.
The first thing you should know is, feeling sleepy in the afternoon is normal. It doesn’t mean you had a big lunch, or that you’re depressed, or you’re not getting enough exercise. That’s just how animals’ cycles work — every 24 hours, we have two periods of intense sleepiness. One is typically in the wee hours of the night, from about 2am to 4am, and the other is around 10 hours later, between 1pm and 3pm. If you’re a night owl and wake up later in the morning, that afternoon sleepiness may come later; if you’re an early bird, it may come earlier. But it happens to everyone; we’re physiologically hardwired to nap.
Naps provide different benefits depending on how long they are. A short nap of even 20 minutes will enhance alertness and concentration, mood and coordination. A nap of 90 minutes will get you into slow wave and REM sleep, which enhances creativity. If you sleep deeply and uninterruptedly the whole time, you’ll go through a full 90-minute sleep cycle, and recoup sleep you might not have gotten the night before (we’ve all heard it a million times, but most of us don’t get enough sleep at night).
Try not to sleep longer than 45 minutes but less than 90 minutes; then you’ll wake up in the middle of a slow-wave cycle, and be groggy. I used to hate taking naps during the day for just this reason — I would always wake up in a fog. My problem was I hadn’t yet perfected the art of the 20-minute catnap.
Find a nice dark place where you can lie down. It takes about 50% longer to fall asleep sitting up (this is why red eye flights usually live up to their name), and be armed with a blanket; you don’t want to be chilly. You also don’t want to be too warm, which can lead to oversleeping. (There was a kind of urban legend circulating when I was a kid: don’t fall asleep in the sun, or you’ll never wake up. Not true — but you might wake up three hours later with a ripe sunburn.)
White noise can help you fall asleep, especially during the day when construction crews, garbage trucks, barking dogs and other noisy awake-world things can conspire to destroy your nap. Keep a fan on, or turn on a nearby faucet for a pleasing rushing-river sound. (Just kidding about that last one.)
Don’t nap too close to bedtime, or you might not be able to fall asleep later. Remember, your inbuilt sleepy window is sometime in the early to mid-afternoon — try to nap then.
Quit that silly job where they don’t let you take naps during the day.Best tips for healthy nap-taking are:
  • Best nap length: short. Naps for longer than one hour will make it harder for you to wake up and resume your daily activities – even a 20 minute snooze can enhance alertness, concentration, mood and coordination. Try not to nap too close to bedtime so your normal nighttime sleep won’t be affected.
  • Best position: lying down.  But if you’re not able to make it to a bed or a couch, it is possible to nap in a chair; it can, however, take 50% longer to fall asleep sitting up.
  • Best surroundings: dimly lit, safe, quiet, and just a bit on the warm side – but not so warm that you slip into a too-deep sleep. Sleep masks offer both the darkness you need as well as gentle pressure to relax tense muscles around the eyes. White noise like a fan or quiet music in the background can help mask noisy distractions from those annoying people who are not napping.
  • Best state of mind: a nap intention, such as “I will relax into a 20-minute nap.” Allow yourself to disconnect your thoughts for a few moments, breathing deeply and steadily. Set an alarm for yourself so you don’t snooze beyond your nap goal.

My success as a new convert to napping was not as a result of any of these strategies.  I had no ideal surroundings, positions, or nap length in mind when I returned home from hospital following my heart attack.  I simply noticed that I could not seem to keep my eyelids propped open by 2 o’clock every afternoon.  I took to napping like a natural. And now that I’ve learned it’s actually good for my heart health, I plan to keep up my 20-minute naps as long as possible.

The late Dr. William Anthony of Boston University felt so strongly about the health benefits of the daily afternoon nap that he founded National Nap Day (held on the Monday following the switch to Daylight Savings time).  His goal was to raise awareness of the link between sleep health and work-related productivity. 

Work-related naps?  But what about the realities of life that make naps difficult if not downright impossible for most people?  How do we squeeze a heart-healthy nap into a busy afternoon at work?

Dr. Anthony, who referred to himself as the NapMaster General, actively promoted an afternoon nap at work.  “Napping at the workplace provides a healthy, low-cost method for increasing employee productivity,” he claimed, quoting National Sleep Foundation stats like:

  • 40% of adults admit that the quality of their work suffers when they’re sleepy.
  • 68% say their ability to concentrate is diminished by sleepiness
  • 19% report making mistakes and errors due to sleepiness.
  • 33% of adults surveyed would nap at work, if allowed.

Dr. Anthony added: 

“One thing we stress: you’re taking a nap at the job, not ON the job. It’s like a coffee break, or a lunch break, or a smoke break.”  

He cited companies such as Nike, where instead of reaching for another cup of coffee to wake themselves up when sleepy, employees have access to “relaxation rooms” during the day where employee naps are divided into 20-minute blocks.


  1. M. Zaregarizi, “Acute changes in cardiovascular function during the onset period of daytime sleep: comparison to lying awake and standing”. Journal of Applied Physiology 2007 103:4, 1332-1338

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:  I wrote more about napping – and other forms of self-care –   in my book  A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease“.  You can ask for it at bookstores (please support your local independent bookseller!) or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from my publisher Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).

Q:  Are you a napper? 


6 thoughts on “In praise of the afternoon nap

  1. Another tip that helps is to find a sleep mask that has a mid to high level of light blocking. Look for a layer of blackout material. It ought to be sewn into the mask. Masks differ in their contour and just how much of the mask covers the eyes. Some masks are heavier than others as a result of the type of material that is used. Additional padding will make the mask a bit heavier but it will work better to keep the light out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes I am definitely a napper now 🙂 but it took a major health crisis (and terrible fatigue) to make this a daily reality. This is great advice for all, sick or well.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Thomas,
    The information is interesting. I am writing this from India. I got used to afternoon sleep from a long time. These days I don’t feel all that well after long afternoon sleep. Further I am not able to sleep in the nights. In the disturbed sleep I get bad, unpleasant, unhygeinic dreams. Due to a friend’s advice I, with some difficulty, avoided sleeping in the afternoons for the past four days. Do you think avoiding sleep in the afternoon will make me healthy. I am 50yr old.
    I shall be thankful if you could give reply.
    Wishing you success,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Somalatha – there is a difference between a short refreshing nap and a “long afternoon sleep”. The research noted above recommended just 20 minutes of napping for optimal health benefits – even suggesting that you should set an alarm to make sure you don’t snooze longer than your ‘nap goal time’. If napping results in poor sleep at night, consult your physician to come up with a healthy sleep schedule that works for you and your body.


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