Power Naps, Siestas and Forty Winks

Photo credit: donrenexitoGrandpa was a devotee of the siesta.  He called it “forty winks” and it was  the ritual of lying down after a hard day of manual labour and maybe nodding off for a while.  Not culturally sanctified on the job in suburban Australia, he managed to fit it in, mid-afternoon when he arrived home.

“Forty winks” is an old English expression which just goes to show that the siesta is not unique to hot, rural countries with a Spanish connection or followers of Islam, for whom it’s traditional health policy.  Research has now shown us that there is a natural rhythm in human metabolism that makes us want to rest in the early afternoon, followed by a natural return of vitality later in the day.  It’s called being “bi-phasic” and it’s what we humans naturally are: creatures who thrive on one long period of sleep and one shorter one. Similar to cats and dogs.

The very definition of the word “siesta” gives us a hint.  It comes from the Latin “hora sexta” or “sixth hour”. Just the right amount of time to do a good morning’s work, enjoy lunch and take a break when the lower energy cycle kicks in. It was probably the Industrial Revolution that separated most of us from the siesta.  The machines had to keep rolling. We no longer worked close to home.  And now, how many of us can return to the farmer’s lifestyle? Hail the Power Nap.

So what a clever person was Cornell University psychologist, James Maas, who coined  a phrase which transformed the need for a quick sleep during the day from an act of adult weakness to a sign of professional insight and stress management capability.  The Power Nap.  The average serious western businessperson now feels much better about nodding off here and there on the strength of these simple words.

What are the Benefits of a Siesta?  

One important consideration for longevityboomers is the link to lower rates of heart disease.  One 2007 study involving 24,000 subjects found a 34% reduced risk of heart disease in nappers.  Dr Dimitrios Trichopoulos, from the Harvard School of Public Health who conducted the research notes that “in countries where mortality from coronary diseases is low, siesta is quite prevalent”. A siesta can also:

  • increase afternoon productivity at work by over 30%
  • reduce risk of accidents in the workplace
  • reduce risk of  accidents for drivers – “stop, (nap), revive, survive” ……. a nap can improve alertness 100%
  • compensate for lack of night time sleep, which is linked to obesity and poor immune function
  • be extremely helpful for parents of night-waking infant

Alternative to the siesta? 

  • Twenty minutes meditation is said to have the metabolic effect of 2 hours sleep…..very refreshing.
  • Yoga nidra is deep relaxation in a lying position, also lasting around 20 minutes.  Download an app.  They’re everywhere.

High Achievers who were Fans of the Nap

  • Winston Churchill
  • George Bush
  • Bill Clinton
  • Brahms
  • Thomas Edison
  • Margaret Thatcher
  • Einstein
  • Charlemagne
  • And Napoleon, said to nap between battles while riding on his horse.

Note: Claims have been put forward that napping after lunch might be slightly linked with developing type-2 diabetes? The question is whether waking from a nap can negatively affect hormones linked to insulin production. You can read the original research here. But the jury is definitely still out as to causality and most experts see this possibility as less significant than already established risk factors such as overweight, age and genetic predisposition.

If you’re seriously interested in the science of napping search here.

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