Naptime - How long is too long? - (7/20/2021)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro  

We have experienced times when yawns are contagious. You yawn, then your spouse yawns. The dog yawns, then the cat yawns. During any given church service, one can witness an eruption of yawns, with the second altar boy on the left identified as Patient Zero. Scientists have studied the causes of these infectious involuntary reflexes. The results have been, thus far, sleep-inducing. 

“Good afternoon, Mr. Myers. How’s it going?” the pharmacist asked the gentleman. However, Mr. Myers was in the middle of a yawn – an oscitance so cavernous that the pharmacist could see all of the man’s dental work. This event triggered a yawn-quake inside the pharmacist's mouth that could not be stifled with all the jaw pressure he could muster. “Pardon me, doc,” said Mr. Myers. “I just got up from my after-lunch nap.” The pharmacist looked at the wall clock: 5:20 PM. “You must have had a late lunch,” the pharmacist remarked. “Nope, I took a 4-hour nap, like I do most days.” 

Napping is restorative. Babies take naps because both their cognitive and physical abilities are growing exponentially. And they become darn cranky if they do not get about 40,000 winks a day. Older people take wee naps for an extra boost of energy and to downshift while they coast through a busy world. However, the extremely long naps may be the signal of something else.   

According to research presented at the 2020 European Society of Cardiology conference, naps longer than 60 minutes on a regular basis could result in early death and a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease. Conversely, naps that are 60 minutes or shorter taken once or twice a week may, in fact, be beneficial for heart health. 

Adults need about 6 to 10 hours of sleep PER NIGHT, says the National Sleep Foundation. Unless Mr. Myers stays up all night, his daytime marathon naps are robbing him of healthy nighttime sleep. "I like getting up at 3 AM to watch The Honeymooners." He told the pharmacist. "Why don't you just DVR it so you can watch it during the day?" the pharmacist asked. "Because I am up at 3 AM when it's on," he replied as if that was a rational answer. So, let's say a typical person gets 8 hours of sleep a night with no daytime naps. That person is likely functional throughout the day. However, if you chop it into a 4-hour session at night and a 4-hour afternoon nap, the revitalizing benefits of sleep are eroded. Research shows that people who fragment their sleep patterns are at higher risks for unicycle accidents and falling down elevator shafts. Why? Because they are not sufficiently awake to pay attention to whatever the heck they are doing.    

So why does Mr. Myers, 67, take naps so excessive that they devour a significant chunk of his day? He just retired. So, is he bored? Is he blocking out unwanted thoughts? Is he depressed? Most sleep disorder specialists agree that depression does not result in daytime sleepiness. Just the opposite. Clinical depression is typically linked to insomnia. The untreated person with depression would kill his canary for a nap. Yet, the unrelenting noises in his brain say no. The pharmacist flipped through Mr. Myers' drug list to see if there were any clues. But there were no sedatives, sleeping pills, or even heart meds that might pummel his sleep architecture into a pile of rubble. 

The best advice is for Mr. Myers to have a sit-down with his physician. Mrs. Myers must notice her husband’s patterns (unless she is having an affair with the pool boy!). She would be the person the pharmacist would gingerly contact to broach the subject. She may not think his nap habits are odd, but they can have severe effects on his heart. "We all have to take care of each other," the pharmacist thought as he greeted his next patient, with a smile. Not a yawn.     

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist and writer-in-residence at Rx-Press. 

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