The benefits of napping: it boosts creativity and improves concentration, but new studies suggest it could be linked to health risks
- Proponents say napping boosts focus, creativity and productivity – especially in young people – but fresh research links it to health risks
- A person’s need for a nap may be due to existing ailments, or genetics, studies suggest; a nap won’t compensate for poor night’s sleep, another study warns
Afternoon napping is part of everyday culture in places such as Japan and Spain, and the siesta is gaining acceptance in modern Western and Asian workplaces.
Ask anyone who naps during the day and they will probably tell you it improves their concentration, creativity and/or productivity. That is why new research is raising eyebrows, warning of napping’s links to health problems.
Those who regularly take a short nap during the day increase their risk of high blood pressure and stroke, according to a 2022 study published in the journal Hypertension.
Frequent daytime naps are associated with a 12 per cent higher risk of developing hypertension and a 24 per cent higher risk of stroke in adults, compared to people who never took a nap, found researchers from Central South University in Changsha, in China’s Hunan province, based on data from the UK Biobank, a database with medical and genetic data from half a million participants.
Commenting on the study, sleep researcher Michael Grandner, from the University of Arizona in the US, emphasises that it is probably not the nap itself that is harmful.
Instead, many people who take a short nap during the day do so because of a lack of sleep at night: “Poor night sleep is associated with poorer health, and a nap is not enough to compensate.”
The research confirms previous study findings “that generally show that taking more naps seems to reflect increased risk for problems with heart health and other issues”.
However, this is no reason to demonise napping in general.
Younger people in particular seem to benefit from napping during the day. A US study showed that naps have a positive effect on teenagers’ concentration and learning behaviour. This is not least because they often have a shifted sleep rhythm: they go to bed late, but have to get up early because of school.
Napping is often frowned upon in many Western countries, says the lead author of the US study, Ji Xiaopeng, from the University of Delaware. In these countries, the monophasic sleep pattern – sleeping once a day, usually for eight hours at a stretch – would be considered a sign of mental maturity, she says.
In any case, a study by Michigan State University in the US shows we should not expect life-changing effects from a nap. As its authors write in the journal Sleep, a short nap has little benefit for cognitive abilities and would especially not compensate for a night of poor sleep.
“We found that short naps of 30 or 60 minutes did not show any measurable effects,” lead author Kimberly Fenn said.
Regardless of what a nap does, the need for them seems to be partly genetic. At least, that is what sleep doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital in the US found in a large study.
As they report in the journal Nature Communications, there are three types for whom a nap is particularly important: people who get up very early; people who suffer from sleep disorders; and people who need more sleep for genetic reasons.
“This tells us that daytime napping is biologically driven and not just an environmental or behavioural choice,” says co-author Hassan Saeed Dashti.
“Future work may help to develop personalised recommendations for a siesta.”
Previous studies on the topic suggest that the optimal length of a midday nap, as well as the question of whether it is necessary at all, depends primarily on individual factors.
With this in mind, it is best to avoid napping too late in the day and resting for too long: 20 to 30 minutes are often ideal to avoid slipping into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and feeling even more exhausted after waking up than before.