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.
- 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.
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 20% off the list price).
Q: Are you a napper?