Thanksgiving and the science of napping

Thanksgiving and naps go hand in hand: You give thanks, you eat, you nap. Job done. But there’s much more to this napping business than meets the eye.

When should you nap? And for how long? We turned to the recently trending paper on the science of napping for answers. The authors and experts of sleep, Nicole Lovato and Leon Lack (Flinders University, Australia), helped us learn the dos and don’ts for Thanksgiving Day (November 26).   

ResearchGate: I’ve woken up from a restless sleep on Thanksgiving morning. I brave a conversation with my grandmother. Her story lingers over the fine details. My eyelids droop. Should I nap now or wait until after lunch? Why?

Leon Lack: Most research suggests a brief, early to mid-afternoon nap provides the greatest rejuvenation. The main and most prominent low point of circadian alertness is about 3 to 5am, but many people also experience a noticeable dip in alertness from 1 to 3 pm. In saying that, if you’re struggling to stay awake, a brief nap can be beneficial at any time during the day to stay alert.

RG: My parents are laughing in the kitchen because dad dropped the turkey on the floor. Brilliant – glad I stayed up to see this. I peer round the room and wonder who in my family is also thinking of a nap. I mean, it must be a fairly common activity, right?

Nicole Lovato: Napping is relatively common. Around 50% of people report they nap at least once per week. However, rates of napping are reported to be greater in places like Greece, Mexico, and the other siesta cultures. In these areas up to 80% of people will nap as many as four times per week. There are three main reasons people will nap, 1) to catch up on sleep which has been lost, 2) in anticipation of sleep loss, or to avoid feeling sleepy later on, or 3) for enjoyment, boredom or to pass time.

RG: Thanksgiving lunch. Finally! We laugh. We’re merry. We give thanks. I finish my pumpkin pie and waddle towards my bedroom. I set my alarm for…hmm. How long should I sleep for the best results? 

Lack: Your choice depends on your circumstances and plans for the coming night. If you decide to take a 1 to 2 hour siesta, you’ll be less sleepy (and require less sleep) the coming night. If you’re ok with that, time your nap for about 1.5 hours. This is the length of a normal sleep cycle: you’ll be in deep sleep for an hour, and lightly sleeping for the last half hour. If you miss the light sleep at the end then chances are you’ll wake up feeling sluggish and drowsy instead of fresh.

The other option is to have a brief "power" nap of 10-15 minutes. Brief naps can significantly improve alertness and cognitive performance. Also, since you don’t enter deep sleep during this brief time, you won’t experience the sluggish, drowsy effects I mentioned earlier. Our past research has suggested brief naps work as well as longer naps, and don't interfere with the nocturnal quality or length of sleep. 

RG: Yuss! I go for the power nap and wake up feeling great. I feast on the leftover turkey on the table. I decide I want to nap more often. But are regular naps really beneficial? Why?

Lovato: Regular naps are beneficial to relieve sleepiness and restore alertness. Naps are not only beneficial because they make us feel less sleepy and more alert, but they also improve our cognitive functioning, reaction times, short term memory and even our mood. Research by our group has shown that those who regularly nap report feeling more alert after a brief nap in the afternoon, when compared to those who only nap occasionally. Another research group found motor learning was significantly greater following a brief afternoon nap for regular nappers when compared to non-nappers.

RG: We drive to the Thanksgiving parade and I start to fret. If I do nap more often, am I in danger of relying on the additional sleep? Can naps significantly alter my body clock?

Lack: We don’t know yet whether napping can become a habit if used more frequently. However,

a brief afternoon nap shouldn't affect the timing of our body clock. Longer naps are different, though. If long naps result in regularly later bedtimes, they can cause a delay of the body clock. This is due to more light exposure late at night. If the body clock becomes delayed there will be a tendency to sleep in later at every opportunity, particularly on weekends, and this may further delay the body clock. This increases the risk of developing Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome.

RG: The parade made me forget my fears and I return home feeling rejuvenated. I feel so good I suggest throwing some hoops in the driveway with my brother. He agrees but then gets angry because he doesn’t stand a chance - I’m playing like a champ. Did the nap have something to do with my skills?

Lovato: There’s no direct evidence on this, but coordination and movement is likely to be improved following a nap. This is due to improved attention to task and perhaps faster reaction times. There has also been some work demonstrating improved motor learning following a nap, which is likely to suggest improvements in coordination and movement. Typically, individuals will report feeling more coordinated, but the reliability of this finding still really needs to be confirmed objectively.

RG: The day is over and it’s time to fly home. Sigh. It’s a transcontinental flight and jet lag is a sure thing. I consider another nap mid-flight. Is it a good option to get me back on my own time zone?

Lack: If you’ve fully adjusted to your Thanksgiving time zone, then a nap will only be helpful if your flight direction is to the west. An east to west coast flight in America causes a 3 hour delay of your body clock. You will need to stay up 2 to 3 hours later, and wake up later than your body clock would like. A nap on the plane will help you stay up later, re-adjust your body clock, and overcome jet-lag.

If you’re flying home in the eastward direction, however, a nap on the plane should be avoided if possible. Arriving home on the east coast requires you to adjust your body clock 3 hours earlier. You will need all the sleep pressure you can muster to assist an earlier bedtime than you were used to over Thanksgiving.

Feature image courtesy of alliecat1881.