The Sweet Science of Dozing

The healthy benefits of midday napping.

From the WebMD Archives
One of the most important pieces of equipment in the Boston University office of psychologist William Anthony, Ph.D., is a long beige couch. But Anthony doesn't use it for counseling sessions. He takes naps there.

Anthony campaigns tirelessly (except in the early afternoon) to promote the snooze. A short nap, he says, increases productivity, sharpens the senses, and lifts the spirit. "It's what your mother told you when you were a cranky toddler: Go take a nap," he says. "It works the same way with adults."

Anthony's work as Director of BU's Center for Psychological Rehabilitation doesn't involve sleep research. But extolling the virtues of napping in books and on the Internet is a fun sideline for Anthony, who relies as much on silly anecdotes as scientific studies to make his case. Sleep studies, he says, put him to sleep.

Sleep Matters

But the scientific data documenting the benefits of napping -- at least for some people -- continue to mount. Some of the most recent research suggests that a bad night's sleep can stress the body as well as the mind.

One such study, reported in the October 23, 1999 issue of The Lancet, suggests that missing sleep throws the body's metabolism off kilter. Scientists at the University of Chicago studied physical changes in 11 young men who slept four hours per night for six nights in a row. They found that sleep deprivation seemed to trigger a diabetes-like condition, harmed hormone production, and interfered with the ability to use carbohydrates.

But does a nap in the afternoon make up for midnight tossing and turning?

Yes, according to some studies, including those conducted at the Henry Ford Hospital's Sleep Disorders and Research Center in Detroit. Napping is "clearly beneficial to someone who is a normal sleeper but who is getting insufficient sleep at night," says center director Timothy Roehrs, Ph.D. "We don't understand the underlying neurobiology, but sleep time is cumulative."

Roehrs says his group compared the alertness of people who slept eight hours a night to that of people who slept less but took a nap during the day. Both groups were equivalent, he says.