You Could Probably Stand to Nap More, Says Science

February 13th 2015

Jenny Chen

Next time you're chastised for napping, just state that you’re doing your scientific duty to reverse the effects of all the sleep we Americans don’t get.

In 1976, Warren Zevon released a song called “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” The hit song paid homage to partying all day and night with lyrics that went: "I'm drinking heartbreak motor oil and Bombay gin/I'll sleep when I'm dead/Straight from the bottle, twisted again/I'll sleep when I'm dead." In 1992, Bon Jovi released their own hit song also titled “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” which proclaimed, "Until I'm 6 feet under/Baby I don't need a bed/Gonna live while I'm alive/I'll sleep when I'm dead."

Since then, the phrase "I'll sleep when I'm dead" has been a favorite for college students pulling all-nighters and entrepreneurs drinking their 3 a.m. coffees. And it's not just students and entrepreneurs: as a nation, we are a sleep-deprived bunch. According to the Sleep Foundation's 2013 International Bedroom Poll, Americans are among those who get the least amount of sleep in the world, averaging 6 hours and 31 minutes of sleep every night. The only country that has us beat? Japan. But prolonged sleep deprivation can mean death may come earlier than you might expect. Or at least usher in various health complications — scientists have linked prolonged sleep deprivation to obesity, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer's — that aren't as fun as drinking motor oil and Bombay gin.

What might be the cure? Naps. Recent research published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that short, 30-minute naps could reverse the negative hormonal impacts of a night of poor sleep.

Researchers asked 11 males between the ages of 25 and 32 to participate in a three-day sleep study. In the first session, participants slept for two hours and took no naps. In the second session, participants slept for two hours and took two, 30-minute naps throughout the day. The researchers took saliva and urine samples and measured for interleukin-6 – a protein that helps prevent inflammation – and norepinephrine – a hormone that regulates stress — in both sessions. Participants who didn’t nap had lower levels of interleukin-6 than normal and a 2.5 increase in norepinephrine. Participants who took two 30-minute naps had normal levels of interleukin-6 and norepinephrine. Which is to say: the people who took naps were better off.

"This is the first study that found napping could restore biomarkers of neuroendocrine and immune health to normal levels," said lead author Brice Faraut in a statement. "Napping may offer a way to counter the damaging effects of sleep restriction by helping the immune and neuroendocrine systems to recover."

This study builds upon an earlier one conducted in 2007, where participants were deprived of sleep for 24 hours. They were then asked to take a two-hour nap, after which their cortisol levels dropped, as did feelings of sleepiness, while alertness actually increased.

Orfeu Buxton, an Associate Professor of Biobehavioral Health at Penn State University, says that the most recent study is useful because it shows that naps shorter than two hours can also have a positive effect on health. However, he noted that restricting participants' sleep to two hours did not completely mirror reality.

"Most Americans these days get an average of five to six hours of sleep," Buxton said. "It would be interesting to see the effects of short naps on people who get the average amount of sleep and are sleep deprived over a long period of time."

Before that research comes out, though, it still seems that power naps can have health benefits. So go ahead – take that siesta. It's better to not wait until you're dead.