Wake Up To Napping

Afternoon siestas are a way of Mediterranean life. But could a quick 40 winks actually be bad for your health? Our experts decide.

There are some things Europe does better than us, be it fashion, food or simple joie de vivre.

Napping is no exception.

The Spanish finish off lunches of Rioja and five-courses with languid, two-hour-long siestas; the French have considered adding 'nap time' to their 35-hour week; and even Greek offices shut down at lunch.

But our long work hours and dogged professional ethics mean that people in Australia have sacrificed a daytime snooze to work more and sleep less than our European friends.

And all that work and no rest has resulted in a nation of stressed, unhappy, and tired zombies.

While you may call them lazy, our kipping friends in the northern hemisphere might have had it right from the beginning. The science of napping is such that a quick 40 winks could increase your alertness, productivity, libido and energy - enough to really make a difference to your everyday activities.

Winston Churchill was such a fan of naps that he once claimed "you get two days in one" by sleeping an hour at lunch.

Whether it's a power nap at work or a post-lunch snooze, following our Continental counterparts' napping habits could recharge us enough to convert Australia into a nation of siesta-takers.

:: The Science of Sleep

Anyone who's ever woken after a short but deep nap knows the energising boost it can give to the brain and body. That's because, just as computers and batteries need recharging, so do we, says Sammy Margo, author of the The Good Sleep Guide.

"Having a little shutdown time in the middle of the day, where you can switch off for 20 minutes, slow your brain down and come back to your tasks more efficiently, is essential," she explains.

A quick nap has been linked to reduced stress levels, increased libido, improved memory and better overall health. NASA found that when their pilots had a 26-minute nap it boosted work performance by 34 per cent and alertness by 54 per cent.

Research by Harvard found that early-afternoon siestas reduced the risk of heart disease by a third.

But Margo admits that the jury is still out on whether everybody should be taking a kip after lunch.

"While naps are great at re-energising the mind and body, they're not for everyone," she says.

In fact, older people and those who sleep a lot could find that napping might actually be detrimental to their health.

People over 69 years of age who kip in the day for more than three hours a week could increase their chances of dying, a study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found.

A nap of more than 25 minutes a day increased the risk of death in older women from heart problems by 58% and from any non-cardiovascular or non-cancer causes by 60%, due in part to their reduced physical activity.

Research from Birmingham University also found that people who nap regularly have a 26% higher risk of getting Type 2 Diabetes, demonstrating a link between napping, hormone disruption and reduced physical activity.

Professor Kevin Morgan, of Loughborough University's Sleep Research Centre, says that people who nap are probably not getting all the Zzzs they need during the wee small hours and, as a result, are finding their health deteriorates.

"The 'power nap' - where you sleep for 20 minutes in the afternoon - is an urban myth with flaky scientific foundations," he says.

"Most of the world doesn't nap, bar babies, pregnant women and seniors, so there would be something fundamentally wrong with the world as a whole if we were all foregoing such a biological imperative."

The best way to maintain good physical and mental health is to get a full night's sleep of around eight hours a night and this is the key to being productive the next day, he says.

"If you sleep enough at night, then you probably won't find napping so easy - and that's okay.

"But if you do nap, be sure that it's only a top-up to the good sleep you've had the night before."

Margo agrees that there are rules to napping and that a daytime kip should never stand in for lack of sleep.

"A nap is a refresher that won't replace your bad sleep patterns and you shouldn't use the nap to that end," she explains.

"So, if you need to sleep more, go to bed earlier than you normally do and wake up at a normal time instead of lying in or napping."

:: It's nap time!

If you like the sound of some daytime napping, make sure you know the rules...

1. Aim to take your shut-eye between 1pm and 3pm: "This is when your energy levels dip naturally, but if you try to nap after this period it will affect your night-time sleep," Margo says.

2. Lying down is the best way to nap but if you can't manage that, try to find a comfortable position you can relax into.

3. Use an eye mask and ear plugs to lull your body into sleep mode.

4. Turn off your phone, computer and any electronics, giving yourself as quiet a space as you can.

5. Set an alarm to wake yourself up after 20 minutes. "This is the ultimate time to improve your memory, clear the brain and re-energise you. Any longer and you wake up groggy," Margo says.

Napping facts

:: Famous nappers include Bill Clinton, Albert Einstein and Margaret Thatcher.

:: In Japan, inemuri, or falling asleep at work, is considered a sign of devotion to the job.

:: The word "siesta" comes from the Latin 'hora sexta', or sixth hour - a reminder to those who awoke at dawn to take a midday rest.

:: The post-lunch dip in energy we all feel isn't due to food - it's because our hormone levels and body temperatures actually decrease around 2pm or 3pm every day, making us feel sleepy.

Want more? We thought you might like this video.


Sign Out

Join the Conversation

Please note, LifeStyle cannot respond to all comments posted in our comments feed. If you have a comment or query you would like LifeStyle to respond to, please use our feedback form.