Sleep Care

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Napping

A nap is a brief period of sleep, taken outside of the normal sleep period.  For most people, this means that a nap occurs during the daytime.  Naps are usually taken when we’re feeling tired, or in order to boost energy for a later activity.  While napping is normal, especially for young children and the elderly or after a poor night’s sleep, adults who feel very tired during the day and need long, frequent naps to function may need to be evaluated for a sleep disorder.  Excessive daytime sleepiness is a symptom that could indicate sleep apnea, narcolepsy, hypersomnolence, or another sleep disorder.

Brief naps of 15-30 minutes in length have been studied to learn their effect on alertness and mental activity.  These brief periods of sleep during the day are often called power naps.  One study allowed individuals to sleep only 4 hours one night, then tested the subjects to see whether a short, 15-minute nap showed any improvement in mental ability during the afternoon.  The study showed that a 15-minute nap after lunch maintained subsequent alertness and performance, especially during the mid afternoon.  Therefore, it is a good idea to take a short nap if possible after a poor night’s sleep.

Why is it important to keep daytime naps short, preferably in the 15-30-minute range?  The answer lies in the different stages of sleep found in humans.  There are four stages.  Stages 1 and 2 are lighter stages of sleep.  Stage 3 is a deep sleep.  Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep is characterized by eye movements and loss of muscle tone.  As a person sleeps, he or she will start at stages 1 and 2, transition into 3 after half an hour or so, and will enter REM later.

Deep sleep, stage 3, occurs during the first part of the night and will fade out as the night progresses, allowing a person to wake in the morning from a lighter stage of sleep feeling alert and well-rested. A nap during the day will follow the same cycle; however, after half an hour or so a person will typically enter deep (stage 3) sleep.  Awakening from this stage of sleep can result in sleep inertia.  Sleep inertia is a physiological state characterized by a decline in motor dexterity and a subjective feeling of grogginess immediately following an abrupt awakening.  This case of sleep inertia would counteract the benefits of a daytime nap discussed earlier.  Therefore, it is important to prevent entering deep sleep while taking a short nap.  In fact, studies have shown that just 3 minutes of stage-2 sleep are enough to feel refreshed.

Shift workers can benefit greatly from using naps to help them adjust to working third shift or even rotating shifts, which go against the natural inclination to sleep at night and be awake and alert during the day.  Taking a nap before work improves the performance of night-shift workers.  Having a cup of coffee before the nap improved alertness even more.

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