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Napping Feels Great – But It Might Make Your Insomnia Worse

Napping. As kids, we all probably hated it when our parents made us take naps. I certainly did! And as a teenager and young adult, I thought to sleep, in general, was a waste of time.

Now, ironically, it's a sought-after luxury. I even have what I call my "napping position" on the sofa!

Naps can help improve your memory, lower your blood pressure, and increase your mental focus.1 This all sounds wonderful and particularly attractive to those with insomnia. However, these benefits are primarily for people who don't have insomnia. For people with insomnia, napping can set them back.

Are you tired or sleepy?

If you're considering a nap, first ask yourself – are you tired and wired, or are you SLEEPY? Most people with insomnia don't suffer from persistent sleepiness.

If you are so sleepy in the daytime that you could easily fall asleep, this could signal a sleeping disorder that needs medical attention, such as obstructive sleep apnoea.

Most people with insomnia feel fatigued rather than sleepy, and so napping won't fix the feelings and can make your sleep problem worse in the long run.

How can napping affect sleep drive?

What is sleep drive?

The need for sleep is what we call "sleep drive." It occurs because of a biochemical change in our bodies and brains. The chemicals thought to be involved with sleep drive build up throughout the day and evening. They begin to build from the time you get out of bed right through until you fall asleep.2

If you don't get enough sleep, you have "leftover" sleep drive, which can lead you to feel fatigued or sleepy (depending upon how much sleep drive you still have left unused).

Napping reduces sleep drive

Napping helps you feel less sleepy by temporarily reducing your need to sleep – it helps use up some of that sleep drive. This can feel good in the short run, but it also means you may have less sleep drive when it is time to go to bed at night.

People with insomnia want to take advantage of this build-up of sleep drive, not reduce it by taking naps. Avoiding napping increases your sleep drive, and so strengthens that need for sleep that we need to put us to sleep at night. In fact, one important strategy used in the treatment of chronic insomnia purposefully increases sleep drive to help 'drive you to sleep' and to stay asleep.

What if you have to take a nap?

Everyone needs a nap sometimes, however, be wary of trading a short-term gain for perpetuating your sleeping pain.

If you have to take a nap, for example, to be safe in some activity you have to do, limit it to 20 to 30 minutes, so you don't use up too much of your sleep drive.

You will also want to be sure to nap in your bed and not on the sofa or in a chair. You don't want to associate your chair with sleeping. Ensuring you sleep only in your bed will help strengthen the association between your bed and sleep – another important aspect of recovering from insomnia.

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