Why afternoon naps could be a sign of serious health problems

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Napping could be a sign of serious health problems

Afternoon naps have long been regarded as good for our health and there is certainly a lot of evidence to suggest that is the case. However, recent research suggests there could be a downside for some people, with the need for naps being an indicator of serious illnesses, and that in some cases, they may even do more harm than good.

It just highlights what most people already know, that sleep can be a very frustrating process. Sometimes we’re desperate for it but can’t get it, with our minds refusing to let us nod off no matter how tired we are.

And then at other times, you have important work to do and yet sleepiness starts to overpower you, no matter how hard you fight it.

Most people will also have experienced the frustration of lying awake half the night unable to get to sleep, and then finding themselves getting drowsy just as the alarm clock is about to off, signalling time to get up for work.

Maddening doesn’t come close.

Feeling a little drowsy in the afternoon, especially after a meal, is perfectly normal because of what’s referred to as the circadian dip.

Circadian refers to the body’s internal clock, which we’re largely unaware of but which runs in the background carrying out essential processes over a 24-hour cycle. It’s a natural part of this cycle to feel tired in the early afternoon when our energy level dips a little.

It’s no wonder that we indulge in a nap when we can, especially when we get older and have more free time. Indeed, some cultures in warmer climates like Spain turned the afternoon nap, or siesta, into a way of life, although the pressures of modern life seem to have put a stop to that in many cases.

Nevertheless, the nap remains popular. One in three American adults take an afternoon snooze, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

And of course, those 40 winks can very good for you, making you feel more refreshed so you’re less lethargic and so better able to enjoy the rest of your day. The extra sleep can also improve your mood, give you more energy and make it more likely that you might go for a walk or take some other form of exercise, which provides an extra bonus.

Controlled studies in laboratory settings have also shown that afternoon naps can improve our memories.

However, there can also be a downside.

Harvard University has highlighted concerns raised by experts who have studied the relationship between sleep and our general health, including possible links to serious illnesses.

Dr. Suzanne Bertisch, the Clinical Director of Behavioral Sleep Medicine at the Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said there had been studies that have suggested both benefits and harms with napping.

She says some studies have found that adults who take long daytime naps may be more likely to have conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and depression.

Sleeping during the day may also be a sign that you’re not getting enough sleep at night, which is associated with a higher risk of developing those illnesses.

This, of course, puts people in that Catch 22 situation whereby you don’t get enough sleep at night so you need to nap in the afternoon, which in turn means you find you can’t get to sleep until very late into the night, which makes you tired again the next morning. Dr. Bertisch recommends limiting the time of your afternoon nap so it refreshes without becoming a substitute for sleep at night.

This is in line with traditional siestas, which typically only last about 20 to 30 minutes in countries like Spain and South America.

The occasional mid-afternoon slump is probably nothing to worry about but regular drowsiness could indicate that you’re getting low-quality sleep because of a sleep disorder. If that drowsiness continues, or you find you regularly want to sleep beyond the typical siesta time of 30 minutes, then it could be a sign of underlying problems such as diabetes or heart disease and you should consult your doctor.

Dr Bertisch makes some helpful suggestions for how to nap well without creating other problems for yourself.

The most important thing is timing. Try to sleep early in the afternoon when that circadian dip often hits. An early nap is less likely to disrupt your nighttime sleeping than a snooze in the evening.

Keeping the nap short, at about 20 minutes, will also help avoid problems sleeping at night, and will also reduce that grogginess that often comes with sleeping for an hour or two in the afternoon. Get your partner to help you or set your alarm clock.

Above all, Dr Bertisch urges that we monitor our sleep. If you get a regular seven hours sleep or more at night but still feel tired and need afternoon naps, then it may be a sign of underlying problems and it’s advisable to consult your doctor.

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