It’s not hard to understand why getting enough sleep is important to your overall health: Being well rested helps with your concentration, digestion, mood, memory, energy levels, and a wide variety of other common health markers. But when you’re not getting enough sleep at night, should you take a nap to “catch up”? The answer is a hard maybe.
Insufficient sleep or “sleep debt” is something that can happen once or accumulate over time. One night of insufficient sleep might not be enough to significantly impact how you feel, but several nights in a row often result in more serious problems. Whether or not you can truly catch up on sleep is a debated topic. There does seem to be a consensus that you cannot catch up within the same day, but have to get extra sleep for several days in a row to recover from sleep debt. This 2008 article by Molly Webster in Scientific American does a great job of explaining the process of recovering from periods of insufficient sleep https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-can-you-catch-up-on-sleep/.
If it takes several days of additional sleep to recover from a lack of sleep, is it worth you taking time in the middle of your day to nap? The answer seems to hinge around nap duration. Brooks and Lack (2006) found that naps between 10-20 minutes resulted in increased alertness and energy for up to 2.5 hours after napping, while naps lasting 30 minutes or more had the opposite effect, resulting in grogginess likely caused by sleep inertia. Basically, if you have something important happening in an hour that requires your full attention, a short cat nap will help you be more focused and present. If you are chronically sleep deprived due to shift work, small children, a new puppy, or any other sleep sapping thing, a nap can help you feel better briefly, but does not replace a full night’s sleep.
Is there any reason you shouldn’t nap? If you are someone who suffers from insomnia, napping may actually contribute to increased difficulty sleeping at night or mess with your circadian rhythms. Napping late in the day can also lead to poor sleep quality or difficulty falling asleep at bedtime. It’s also worth saying that if you suddenly feel like you need to nap on a daily basis and there is no apparent cause for your increased fatigue, you may want to consult with your doctor to ensure that you do not have an underlying health issue related to your sleep.
Napping is always going to be a personal choice and for some people a luxury in the early afternoon. So if you need a siesta, find a quiet space, a comfortable position, and aim for 10-20 minutes of shut eye to recharge!