My fellow sleep specialists and I are campaigning to rehabilitate napping and show that short naps are an excellent and respectable sleep management strategy. They can make you smarter, faster, and more confident than you would be without them. They should be widely regarded as a powerful weapon in the fight against fatigue, and the person who chooses to nap should be recognized as a hero.
With these enthusiastic words, Willian C. Dement (1928-2020), one of the American pioneers in sleep medicine research, extolled the virtues of a nap in his book ‘Promise in Sleep’ (2000). Should we listen to him or was he exaggerating? Are they always recommended? But before tackling the question, let’s recall the cultural origins of this custom.
The sixth hour break
The Spanish word ‘siesta’ derives from the Latin word ‘sexta’: Roman troopers stopped to eat and rest at the sixth hour of the day, within the twelve hours in which they divided the period of light. In Hispania, the siesta would begin at 1:00 p.m., in Tarraco (now Tarragona), and at 1:30 p.m. in Caesaraugusta (Zaragoza) when it was winter. In summer, it would start at 2:30 p.m. in LucusAugusti (Lugo). This Roman siesta of the sixth hour, after having fulfilled the obligations and after having eaten, was called meridiatum.
Taking a nap, or taking a nap, is a deeply rooted habit in Mediterranean countries. Anglo-Saxon speakers have adopted the Spanish word “siesta” to refer to the period of sleep established at noon, after lunch, while brief naps at other times of the day are called ‘naps’. In this sense, sleep specialists use the anglicism‘nap’ or ‘napping’ to refer to those brief periods of sleep that occur at times other than naptime, which in colloquial language would be “taking a nap”.
As a curiosity, the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy includes the term “ram nap” which, in some areas of Spain, is known as “lamb nap” or “gorrino nap”. It was the dream that the shepherds had when, after walking all morning, they found a good pasture and rested for a while when those animals ate. Eventually, they would switch turns to rest afterwards. She was justified, probably due to fatigue, the time of the day (noon is the hour of greatest physiological sleepiness) and the low blood sugar levels in these circumstances.
At present, the nap is a habit that enjoys a good reputation, but you have to know how to use it. Next, we give you some clues and tips to throw it at us with scientific foundation:
1. When is a nap recommended and when is it contraindicated?
Workplace. Taking short naps in the workplace has traditionally been considered provocative. Today, however, it is normal for workers to nod inside or outside the place where they carry out their workday when they do shifts.
Taking short naps.In recent decades, short naps have found their place as a prevention strategy to combat sleep deprivation in shift or night workers and to address jet lag.
Nap at school. Except in individual cases, school children over 3 years of age do not need to take it. This reduces the time they spend in bed and the length of their night’s rest, and increases sleep latency (the time it takes the child to fall asleep). Night-time sleep is most crucial for the development of children.
Nap while driving. Nodding off is one of the main recommendations from experts to combat drowsiness behind the wheel and prevent traffic accidents. During a campaign in 2013, the European Sleep Research Society highlighted the importance of taking short stops and naps when driving. In many parts of the world, a distinction is already made between driving while fatigued and driving while drowsy.
2. Health benefits
Cardiovascular risk. In general, the short duration of sleep and its restriction for many years is clearly associated with a higher risk of obesity, arterial hypertension and diabetes, and with a higher incidence of cardiovascular events.
Some studies show that taking a 30-minute nap in the afternoon on a routine basis (3 or more days per week) reduces cardiovascular accidents by 30% in healthy individuals. It also decreases the chance of coronary heart disease among working men with sleep debt during the week.
On the other hand, a long nap (more than 60 minutes) instead of a short one (less than half an hour) is linked to an increase in cardiovascular risk, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome in older people.
Cognitive effects. Short amounts of sleep (10-15 minutes) can help restore alertness. They improve attention, memory, cognitive control, reasoning and creativity. In addition, naps help control stress by reducing the activity of the neuroendocrine systems that regulate it.
On the other hand, it is known that fragmented and reduced sleep alters the perception and tolerance of pain, while pain causes, in turn, fragmented and reduced sleep. In this context, the nap plays an “analgesic” role, perhaps because of biodefenses. And speaking of our defenses, it can also change or restore various immunity parameters that have been altered by loss of sleep.
3. The right duration and the right moment
Naps of less than 20 minutes generate only superficial sleep (stages N1 and N2, within the non-REM phases). When these dreams contain only stage N1, they do not produce a clear cognitive recovery, in contrast to those that reach stage N2. On the other hand, lengthening them can cause the opposite effect: it is the so-called “inertia or drunken sleep”, which will suppress the cognitive advantage of taking a nap. This can happen if it lasts more than 20 minutes and we enter deep sleep (phase N3).
Choosing the moment is also important. In the early afternoon, sleep falls quickly, is more efficient, and has a recovery N2 phase, unlike late naps. Also, doing them at the wrong time can decrease your recovery power.
4. Final recommendations
• Put her to sleep without complexes. If you are sleepy and have the opportunity to take a nap, you should not fight against this uncontrollable urge, because it will have a good impact on your physical and mental state in the hours that follow.
• Ensure a pleasant environment. Find a place with an acceptable noise level and without excessive lighting.
• Do not do it too late; the sooner the better, and never later than 5 p.m.
• Take one frequently, as a rule. There is a greater benefit if naps are taken on a regular basis, as a beneficial habit for health.
• Do not extend it more than half an hour; nap time should be scheduled for personal reasons, but ideally it should last between 10 and 30 minutes.