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Caught napping recently? You’re not alone.

Fess up: Do you take afternoon naps?

Or, more to the point: Would you indulge in an afternoon nap if you could?

Napping is much maligned in our culture. The phrase “caught napping,” after all, has negative undertones. But amazingly (or maybe not so, given how little sleep we get), one-third of American adults do nap on any given day, according to a national survey released last week.

Nappers exist among all demographic groups, but the survey, which was conducted by the Pew Research Group and included 1,488 adult respondents, found the practice more common among men age 50 and up, people who had exercised within the previous 24 hours, and — duh! — people who had difficulty sleeping (presumably at night).

Interestingly, although women were less likely than men to report any daytime snoozing, they were more likely to say they tossed and turned at night.

The survey also found a U-curve relationship between income and napping. Those making the least amount of money, according to the survey, are the most likely to nap (42 percent of people with incomes below $30,000). As paychecks rise, napping becomes less common — until, that is, incomes reach $100,000. Some 33 percent of the survey’s highest earners reported that they had caught some afternoon z’s within the previous 24 hours.

People who are unhappy are also more likely to take naps — perhaps because they also report having more trouble sleeping.

One major problem with the survey: It didn’t actually define what a nap is. “For some respondents it might mean dozing off for a just a few minutes while for others it might mean a more prolonged sleep,” noted the survey’s staff.

It’s all about opportunity
Mark Mahowald, M.D., director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center at the Hennepin County Medical Center, wasn’t at all surprised by the survey’s findings when I spoke with him about them earlier this week.

“Virtually all of us are sleep-deprived to some extent,” he said, and napping is one (good) way of making up some of that lost sleep.

Most people would probably nap if given the opportunity, he added — and it’s that opportunity that likely explains the survey’s findings that a higher proportion of poorer, older, less healthy and less happy people take naps.

“Our sleepiness can be suppressed pretty well by environmental stimulation,” he explained, “But if we’re sitting at home and we’re, say, depressed, then the tendency could be to lie down and take a nap.”

“You cannot fall asleep if you’re not physiologically sleepy,” he stressed.

Still stigmatized
Napping — indeed, sleep itself — gets a very bad rap. As Mahowald noted: “You never brag about how much sleep you got, only if you pulled an all-nighter or got little sleep the night before.”

But not getting enough sleep is definitely bad for your health. It’s been linked to many serious medical conditions, including heart disease and diabetes. Sleep-deprivation is also a major factor in accidents in the workplace (including such major industrial accidents as the Three-Mile Island nuclear power plant incident and the Challenger Shuttle explosion) and on the road.

“Falling asleep kills more young people behind the wheel than alcohol,” says Mahowald.

Going around sleep-deprived is definitely not something to brag about.

But Mahowald is not all that optimistic that our attitudes toward sleep will change anytime soon. “It’s going to take years, decades, to convince people that sleep is not negotiable,” Mahowald said.

Nappers, unite
So give yourself permission today to take a nap (if you can). If not, get to sleep early tonight. (The Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center has some tips for getting a good night’s sleep, although I’m not sure how people are supposed to implement the last one on the Center’s list: “Try not to worry about things — especially at bedtime”!)

As for changing attitudes about sleep, let’s stop wearing our sleep deprivation like a badge of honor. Perhaps what’s needed instead are some T-shirts that proudly proclaim: Caught Napping.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Tyler Breuch on 08/05/2009 - 12:18 pm.

    That’s an awfully long stretch to say the Challenger exploded because of sleep deprivation. I see that Florence Cardinal theorizes that the managers who authorized the launch had very little sleep, but there were lines of communication between the engineers and the managers.

    The launch proceeded because the managers made a bad decision, not because they were sleepy.

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