Med thumb shutterstock 431426893

In case you haven't heard, napping is all the rage. Yet, despite the spread of pro-napping sentiment, research offers a somewhat fuzzy picture of the relationship between logging mini-sleep sessions and being healthy. Population studies show that big nappers tend to be sicker and sadder than people who seldom (or even never) nap. But, in a number of experimental studies, nappers have run faster, recalled facts more accurately and solved puzzles more easily than those who only slept at night. 

In a recent study, a team at the University of California Riverside sought to reconcile these discrepancies and develop a better understanding of the health implications of the nap-happy lifestyle. To do this, researchers focused on a question that's been overlooked in the universe of nap research: Why do people do it? They came up with a list of 29 different reasons one might nap, and asked 430 college students to answer the question, "When you nap, even if only very rarely, why do you choose to nap?"

In addition to explaining why they napped, participants described their napping habits (how often, how long) and completed questionnaires on socio-demographic characteristics, sleeping habits, daytime alertness, chronotype, personality traits, stress levels, mental wellbeing and overall health. 

Though participants weren't aware, researchers had assigned each of the 29 reasons to one of five categories: 

  • Dysregulative nappers take naps to re-normalize their sleep schedule when something (a night shift, a sinus infection) throws it off.
  • Restorative nappers take naps because they feel drained and need rest to get through the day. They may be sleep-deprived or just inexplicably exhausted. Regardless, they nap because they're too sleepy not to.
  • Emotional nappers nap in response to depression or stress, or because they want to avoid a social or professional situation, or because they feel bored. 
  • Appetitive nappers are the committed snoozers who incorporate regular naps into their schedules because napping makes them feel great. The appetitive napper had the reaction to their first catnap that you're supposed to have to your first SoulCycle class: I'm a lifer.
  • Mindful nappers nap because they've heard napping is the key to focus, energy, bliss or something else good. While appetitive nappers learn from personal experience that napping is the tits, mindful nappers are motivated by an outside source. They follow the leads of CEOs who credit their success to siestas.

Researchers tried to classify participants as being primarily one type of napper, despite the fact that most nappers listed multiple reasons for snoozing. After all was said and done and analyzed to the nth degree, researchers pinpointed distinct health profiles associated with each category.

Participants chose restorative reasons for napping most often. Restorative nappers tended to be night owls with inconsistent shuteye habits, who were nonetheless in good health and felt alert during the day. Researchers felt that participants took restorative naps to compensate for temporary sleep loss rather than because of chronic sleeplessness or overall health issues. Women were far more likely than men to fall into this category

When people say they feel depressed, or use naps to escape the waking world, their napping habits merit a closer look.

Women were also more likely to be emotional nappers, whose siesta tendencies were associated with sleeping and health problems, including depression and stress.

"Emotional napping," study authors wrote, "was the only factor significantly correlated with poor sleep, psychological functioning and physical health," regardless of how the data was analyzed. The verdict? Napping frequently isn't necessarily unhealthy, but emotional nappers are catching Zzzs for the wrong reasons. When people say they feel depressed, or use naps to escape the waking world, their napping habits merit a closer look. 

Appetitive nappers came out on top: Despite napping regularly, they still reported the highest-quality nighttime sleep and the least trouble with post-nap groggines (aka sleep inertia). They were also somewhat more likely to be Asian than caucasian.

The least popular category was dysregulative, which researchers expected to be the case. Though dysregulative reasons weren't popular, they also weren't associated with negative health outcomes. Such nappers may have wonky sleep schedules because of outside disturbances, but they'd probably otherwise have a good rapport with the world of sleep and dreams. College campuses, however, are not a hotbed for dysregulative nappers. 

Mindful nappers scored high on conscientiousness, meaning that they're strivers. But researchers didn't draw many connections between mindful napping and health. Rather, their napping habits are less a reflection of how they feel, or how they're sleeping (which is probably pretty well), than of their goal-oriented nature and interest in optimizing their lives.

Going forward, study authors mentioned, it would be useful to look at the motivation underlying decisions to nap in older, less healthy populations, who may nap for different reasons. Still, the study "sheds light on the psychosocial correlates of sleep that are often obscured by not separating napping behaviors into theoretically meaningful subtypes."

In any case, prepare for appetitive sleepers to share "what type of napper are you" quiz results any day now. We get it, you feel great and sleep well.