Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: My Type A husband, who naturally falls asleep for about 25 minutes on weekend afternoons, complains that he's wasting time when he does so. How do I explain to him the benefits of napping?

Dear Reader: Millions of people throughout the world take a daily nap. In many cultures the afternoon sleep break is built right into everyday life. Businesses close shop and everyone heads home for lunch and a bit of shut-eye.

Here in the goal-oriented United States, though, napping carries a bit of stigma. It sounds as though your husband has internalized that feeling, which is too bad because you're correct -- a daytime nap is often a good thing.

Studies show that napping does more than just reduce fatigue. It can elevate your mood, improve productivity and make it easier for you to learn and retain new information.

However -- and this is where things get a bit tricky -- not all naps are equally beneficial. It turns out that what time you nap and how long that nap lasts make a difference.

A nap as brief as 10 minutes and up to 30 minutes can leave you feeling energized. Sleep much longer than half an hour and chances increase that you'll wake in a mental fog. The reason for all this is that sleep is quite complex. Not only are there several different stages of sleep, they occur in distinct cycles.

When you first drift off, you move from light sleep, from which you can awaken easily, into stages of ever-deeper sleep. Your brain waves and even your brain chemistry change. It becomes progressively more difficult to awaken. People in the stage known as "deep sleep" show no muscle or eye movement.

The other stage of sleep is known as REM sleep, which is short for "rapid eye movement." This is the cycle during which you dream, and in which the brain registers significant electrical and chemical activity. Fall short on REM sleep and it's quite possible you'll wind up feeling cranky or irritable.

Which leads us back to the question of optimal napping.

First -- what time to close your eyes. Sleep experts agree that mid-afternoon is optimal. Your body clock is naturally primed for a break, and it's far enough away from bedtime so as to not interfere with your night sleep.

Next, the reason why a brief nap feels best.

It takes about 90 minutes for your body (and brain) to go through a complete sleep cycle. Sleep too little and you've barely grazed the surface of light sleep. Sleep too long and you're swimming up from the groggy depths of deep sleep. Aim for 20 to 30 minutes, which puts you into the earliest stages of REM sleep and lets you wake up easily, feeling refreshed.

For the best naps, choose a location that's dark and quiet. Lying down results in better sleep than sitting or reclining. Setting an alarm will let you relax into your nap and assure that you'll wake up before deep sleep takes hold.

When you wake up, take a moment to stretch and take a few deep breaths. And enjoy. A good nap is one of life's real pleasures.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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