Who in their right mind doesn’t love an afternoon nap? In a world of busy schedules and that perpetual feeling that there aren’t enough hours in the day or enough days in the week, putting it all on pause for even 20 minutes to rest your head and recharge is a luxury most of us can only dream of.
Now, there are devout nappers who will swear by the power of that midday recharge. But there are probably more people on the exact opposite end of the spectrum who live by the “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” mantra. The latter seems like a recipe for diminishing health and there’s definitely evidence to support that idea, however, new research also warns us to pay attention to over napping. It turns out increased and excessive napping may actually be a sign of Alzheimer’s, the progressive disorder that causes brain cells to waste away (degenerate) and die later in life.
Published in the journal Alzheimer's & Dementia recently, the study was the combined effort of 19 different researchers from the University of California San Francisco, University of California, Berkeley and the University of Sao Paulo, among others. People with Alzheimer’s actually experience changes in their sleep years before their memory begins to decline, sleeping more during the day, taking naps, dosing off, and sometimes experiencing fragmented sleep throughout the night, which is simply that annoying instance of waking up in the middle of the night. Now, some or maybe even all of these sleep habits actually sound normal for some people; maybe even you. But the new findings actually focused on this as an early sign of Alzheimer’s when it represents a noticeable change in sleep patterns, they say.
"It only gets worrisome when it represents a change," said Lea Grinberg, professor of neurology at the University of California San Francisco. "For instance, in some cultures, it is pretty common to nap every day. This is quite okay."
So there’s no need to worry if you’re already that daily (or at least regular) napper. Keep that habit intact if you’re so inclined.
Here’s the thing: these aren’t exactly new, monumental findings. A least not what’s been described so far. As mentioned, researchers have already been aware that changes in sleeping habits, specifically, starting to take frequent naps, can be linked to Alzheimer’s. However, they haven’t understood much about the connection, with the major unanswered question being whether or not napping was a symptom of the disease or a contributing factor to its development. It seems the answer is the former, with a need for more sleep being the result of the disease starting to wipe out neurons that are responsible for keeping us alert and awake through the daylight hours.
To learn this, they compared the brains of 13 deceased people who had Alzheimer’s to the brains of people who didn’t have the disease. “Wakening neurons” are destroyed in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, while they found “considerable amounts of tau inclusions,” a protein that’s present in any brain which stabilizes parts of neurons, in the awakening area of the healthy brains. When a person has Alzheimer’s, they found those same tau would become abnormal and destabilize the neurons instead. According to Grinberg, the accumulation of abnormal tau protein is “one of the hallmarks” of Alzheimer’s.
Of course, nearly everybody has that familiar afternoon crash, right? We just don’t all give in and take naps. We can’t all be suffering from the early signs of Alzheimer’s. In fact, getting tired during the day is so commonplace we all know the phenomenon as that “2:30 crash.” Many believe it is as simple as high-carb lunches followed by a drop in energy once the insulin spike wears off. Of course, poor or inconsistent sleep habits or a night of tossing and turning can obviously impact energy the next day as well. But researchers suggest there are actually much more natural reasons to explain that routine of getting a midday spike followed by the dreaded 2:30 crash.
One explanation, according to Dr. Fiona Kerr who is a Neural and Systems Complexity Specialist from the University of Adelaide, our bodies are just naturally built for two sleeps a day. “The primary effect is the blocking of neurogenesis through increases in corticosterone levels but there is also a drop in attention capacity, executive function, working memory, quantification skills, logical reasoning, motor dexterity, and mood,” she says.
In order to reverse those midday roadblocks, she suggests the better solution isn’t actually making sure you get more sleep the night before and in the morning, rather a quick 15-minute nap to hit the reset button on this drop in energy. According to Kerr, the short midday nap temporarily improves performance, awareness, and even your mood, to name a few. And those effects can last through the next two to three hours, also helping you avoid that late-day reach for more coffee. And since caffeine can take as much as seven hours to work its way out of your body, a 15-minute nap at 3 pm is certainly going to serve you better when 10 pm rolls around and you don’t have caffeine still coursing through your veins.
Of course, as we mentioned, napping isn’t exactly convenient in the modern workday. Most of us don’t have an office door to close and a couch to crash on while our assistant holds all our calls over the next half hour. What you can do, however, is be more productive with a more universal schedule. Assuming you did get that hour lunch break anytime from noon to 1 pm, you’ve actually been given the opportunity to get out in front of the crash, according to some researchers.
First, even ten minutes of relaxation and closing your eyes during your lunch break can fight off the crash. And if you’re still adamant about not taking a nap, another option is to try the exact opposite: exercise. A walk, a quick jog, or even a few minutes of stretching during your lunch break will increase blood and oxygen flow and release endorphins, giving you a little more energy heading into that dreaded 2 o’clock hour rather than setting you up for a miserable afternoon of drowsiness.