What Is The Difference Between A Nap And A Sleep?

You can take a nap, catch forty winks, snooze, doze, kip, drop off, nod off, and of course you can fall asleep. But is there much of a difference between a nap and a sleep?

Along with food and water, sleep is an integral component to human existence. Too little and we are unable to function at our best. None at all and we start to hallucinate, our organs eventually start to fail, and sections of the brain start to degenerate. However, you can also have too much sleep and this brings with it just as many health implications, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and increased risk of death.

In this article, we’re going to explore what the difference is between a nap and a sleep. Let’s take a look!

What Is Sleep?

Sleep is a complex thing. On a basic surface level, sleep is a natural state of rest for the body and mind, however it is more involved than this, with many deeper layers to be explored. We usually sleep at night, when the world is dark and our bodies produce more melatonin (the sleep-inducing hormone). But of course, shift workers who work through the night or who have varying patterns of work, have to adapt their sleep wake cycles to fit around these time shifts.

Sleep is split into 4 stages:

  • N1 – This is very light sleep that you go into when you first fall asleep. Breathing is regular but the body has not fully relaxed yet. This sleep stage usually lasts between 1-5 minutes.
  • N2 – As we fall into this deeper stage of sleep our heart rate and body temperature drops. If you suffer from teeth grinding, this is the stage you are most likely to do it. Muscles begin to relax more and brain activity starts to slow down. This stage lasts between 30-60 minutes.
  • N3 – This is the deepest level of non-REM sleep. When we are in this stage of sleep it is much harder to wake us, even with loud noises. During this essential stage of the sleep cycle, the body grows and rebuilds tissue, builds bone and muscle, and the immune system is strengthened.
  • REM – Rapid Eye Movement (REM) is the point in our sleep cycle when we dream. It is so-called because of the rapid, darting movements of the eyes under the eyelids, which occurs alongside other irregular muscle twitches, although for the most part your body is in a semi state of paralysis during this phase. This is the least restful phase of sleep for the body, but the most important for the brain. Memory, emotional processing, and healthy brain development are all worked on during the REM stage.

These 4 stages form part of a sleep cycle that lasts approximately 90-110 minutes, after which the cycle starts again and will likely cycle through several times before you wake.

How much sleep you need can vary, depending on factors such as age, activity level, health etc. As a rough guide, people should ideally be aiming for between 7-9 hours of sleep within each 24-hour period.

So, now that we know more about what sleep is, let’s take a look at napping.

What Is A Nap?

A nap is basically a short sleep. We tend to nap when we’re tired, either because we’ve had a busy day, we’re stressed, we didn’t sleep well the previous night etc.

You can also get different types of naps:

  • Power nap – Usually lasting between 10 to 20 minutes, a power nap is a quick way to recharge those batteries and give you a much more productive afternoon.
  • Recovery nap – This type of nap helps you catch up if you’ve had a bad night’s sleep or if you’ve pulled an all-nighter.
  • Essential nap – An essential nap is for when you’re ill and you need to get some additional rest in the daytime.
  • Prophylactic nap – This is an anticipatory measure! You’re predicting you’re going to have a very late night – maybe you’re working through the night or you’re going out clubbing and not returning until the small hours – so you sneak in one of these before you go out, to prepare for any sleep loss. Also called a ‘disco nap’.
  • Appetitive nap – These are naps that are purely taken because you enjoy the feeling of having had a nap. A pleasure nap, if you like.

As a general rule, the ideal nap should be between 20-30 minutes, anything longer and it starts to fall into the sleep category. You see, it’s all to do with those cycles we talked about earlier. Napping does not involve sleep cycles. It only involves non-REM sleep, so we never really sink into a proper unawakenable deep sleep. Think of the type of sleep you get on a plane. You’re dozing, and you’re sort of in and out of a conscious state, but you’re also very much aware of sounds and movement going on around you. That’s kind of what it’s like when you nap.

Naps can help restore your energy and make you feel more alert and awake for the rest of the day. But nap for too long and you risk it turning into sleep, which can be entirely counterproductive. You are likely to wake up feeling grumpy and groggy and even more tired than beforehand. To truly reap the benefits of a nap, it’s important you think about where you nap, when you nap, and most importantly, how long you nap for. If you’re concerned you may nap longer than you should, set an alarm to make sure you wake up before your nap turns into a sleep.

Can A Nap Affect Our Sleep?

In short, yes. If you want to continue having a good night’s sleep, it’s really important you don’t disrupt your sleep pattern. Too many naps, too long a nap, or if you nap too close to bedtime, you are almost certain to affect the quality of sleep you’re going to have that night, and over time that could totally mess up your sleep pattern.

When you start to rely on daytime naps to help get you through the day or as a way of catching up on lost night time sleep, it can lead to issues, such as insomnia,  sleep paralysis, and other sleep disorders.

In order to keep your sleep on an even cycle, try not to nap after 3pm. This gives you a solid 7 hours (depending on what time you turn in for the night) of awake time before you go to bed. There’s nothing wrong in taking a nap, you just need to know how to take them!

Is There A Difference Between A Nap And A Sleep?

So, the big question… is there a difference between a nap and a sleep? Well, as we have discovered in this article, there are some marked differences between the two:

  • Duration – Naps last between 20-30 minutes, whereas sleep is a lot longer (6 hours plus)
  • Cycles – There are 4 different sleep stages within a sleep cycle, and we have several of these a night. Naps don’t even cycle through one of these.
  • Time of day – Unless you are a night shift worker, sleep tends to be at night and naps are taken during the daytime.
  • Consciousness – When we are asleep the body is inactive and the mind unconscious. During naps we are aware of our surroundings and we are usually responsive to sound and movement.

Both sleep and naps have their benefits, and whilst they should be treated as different processes, it is important to recognise the relationship between the two. Our advice? As long as your main sleep isn’t being affected, you nap away whenever you need it my beauties!

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