Ask Well: Can naps make up for sleep deficits?
Q: There’s been lots of coverage lately about meeting exercise recommendations by completing small chunks of exercise throughout the day rather than one, continuous session. Does the same hold true for meeting sleep recommendations?
A: No. Unfortunately, sleep does not work that way. Substituting periodic naps for one consolidated night of sleep creates severe sleep deprivation, said Dr. Daniel Buysse, a sleep expert and professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.
He and his colleagues once did an experiment in which volunteers agreed to alternate 30 minutes of sleep with 60 minutes of wakefulness for two and a half days straight. They ended up sleep deprived, he said, because sound sleep is not equally likely at all times of day. People have a better chance of falling quickly into deep, restful sleep at night than midday, even if they feel as though they could fall asleep at any time.
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“Our biological clocks do not allow us to sleep as well during the day as at night,” he said. “All sleep is not necessarily equal.”
That’s why night workers get less sleep on average than people who work other shifts – and suffer health consequences as a result, he said.
But it’s always a good idea to make up for lost sleep, regardless of the time of day, said Dr. Ruth Benca, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
People used to think that it was better to pull an all-nighter than to break it up with a short nap, but that isn’t true, she said.
On the other hand, it may be helpful, she said, to take an afternoon nap to compensate for a short night of sleep, bringing a six-and-a-half hour night up to seven, for instance.
“If you have to stay awake for a prolonged period, you can mitigate that a little bit by taking some naps, but you can’t live your life like that,” Dr. Benca said. “Any sleep is better than no sleep, and more sleep is better than less sleep.”