the siesta

Recent research suggests that a siesta can reduce the risk of heart disease and lengthen working men’s lives – regardless of their age. Modern science is now suggesting that we should all be taking a short siesta after lunch – to rest, relax and recharge our batteries. It clears your mind and refreshes. Viva la Siesta.


The importance of a break during the day – and lunch

Christmas is fast approaching, and we are all preparing to celebrate, be social and overeat. Whilst the “average” kilojoule counts of Christmas feasts are often over estimated, it is safe to say that most people will eat richer food, and more of it, than they would during a normal meal.


Now as a result of this overeating, you will, obviously, feel full, maybe even uncomfortably so, as your stomach fills up. And it can also give you heat-burn as the stomach produces more acid to help digest the food. But everyone’s favourite Christmas feast side effect, is the need for a nap. We all remember mum, dad, granny and grandpa falling asleep after the sherry trifle on Christmas Day.


You might think that your post-feast nap is caused by the excess of ham and turkey but this is actually just a myth. It’s true that turkey meat contains tryptophan, an amino acid that the body uses to produce serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. But so do many other foods. Cheddar cheese actually has more tryptophan than turkey does, and you don’t usually fall asleep every time you eat a grilled cheese toasty.


No, the real culprit is simply overeating. When you eat a lot of carbohydrates (think stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, mince pies and Christmas pudding), your body releases extra insulin to keep your blood sugar in check. The massive intake of carb-heavy kilojoules stimulates the release of insulin to counter the sugars. As insulin also manages the uptake of amino acids and protein synthesis, this triggers the uptake of most amino acids from the blood into the muscles – except that is, for tryptophan.


With most of the other amino acids removed from the bloodstream, tryptophan, which is found in turkey and ham, and any meat, cheese or nuts, can find its way to the brain to produce serotonin. Without the insulin surge, tryptophan would have to compete with all the other amino acids as they make their way to the brain through the blood steam and it’s effects are diluted.


Once in the brain, the tryptophan is used to make serotonin – sometimes referred to as the Happy Chemical. Serotonin regulates mood – low levels stimulate anxiety and depression whilst high levels make us feel great, calm, focussed with a general sense of wellbeing – and when in high amounts – sleepy. So – after a big rich meal, like the Christmas Feast, we feel like a nap… 

Now a lot of people ask me, whatever happened to the siesta – you know that short nap previous generations took in the middle of the day or in the early afternoon, often after the midday meal? Seems like a great idea after a large Christmas meal – or any good meal for that matter.


The good news is the Siesta is on its way back! In fact, it never left parts of Europe – even today, much of rural and regional Spain, France and Italy closes down for a couple of hours at lunchtime, so everyone can enjoy a relaxed meal, get away from work and take a short, serotonin induced, nap.


Indeed, recent research suggests that a siesta can reduce the risk of heart disease and lengthen working men’s lives – regardless of their age.


A study of 23 000 men in Europe found that those who occasionally napped had a 12% drop in death from heart disease. Those who napped daily had a 37% drop. (AFR 1/3/07). So sleep and live longer!


It was found to be beneficial to take at least three siestas a week, each lasting 30 minutes. Medical professionals throughout the world are now recommending the anti-stress benefits of the siesta.


This stress-reducing habit lets us slow down, relax and recharge – and helps contribute to the benefits of the Mediterranean diet.


The siesta is the traditional daily sleep of Mediterranean Europe and has also been adopted by Latin American countries and the Philippines.


The afternoon sleep is also a common habit in China, India, The Middle East and North Africa. In these countries, the heat can be unbearable in the early afternoon, making a midday break in the comfort of one’s home ideal – sounds like many parts of Australia!


The original concept of a siesta was merely that of a midday break. This break was intended to allow people to spend time with their friends and family. A nap was not necessarily part of the daily siesta.


But today, the term “siesta” generally refers to a short nap taken after the midday meal. Siestas are traditionally no longer than 30 minutes and are more of a light rest than any kind of serious sleep. Other names for a siesta may include catnap, snooze, doze, winks, power nap or simply, afternoon nap.


In recent years, studies have suggested a biological need for an afternoon nap. The body is on a 24-hour body clock, which makes you wind down between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. and again in the three hours directly after lunch. That’s why post-lunch meetings are always a chore!


Whilst it can it can be difficult to sleep when we are hungry, we often naturally feel sleepy after a meal – particularly a large meal, rich in protein.


In addition to the serotonin effect, researchers have discovered that high blood glucose levels, similar to those after eating a big meal, can switch off the brain cells that normally keep us awake and alert. These findings make evolutionary sense since sleepiness could be the body’s way of telling us to relax and conserve energy once we have found and eaten our food.


Sadly modern working hours and global economics are forcing this traditional midday ritual, that has played out for centuries on shaded terraces, under silk sheets, or on couches, to give way to more modern work habits and – qué lástima! – sleepless afternoons.


Yet modern science is now suggesting that we should all be taking a short siesta after lunch – to rest, relax and recharge our batteries.


Indeed a lunch break is important and should not be ignored. A light lunch not only provides an energy boost for afternoon alertness but also provides an important break from our work. It is important to get away from our desks and workplaces for a little “me time” and to relax.


In South East Asia, the idea of a post-lunch nap is common, and the afternoon sleep is also a common habit in China and Taiwan. Many Japanese offices now encourage their workers to take a nap in special rooms known as napping rooms. Other companies provide employees with “desk pillows” for taking naps at their desk.


Siestas have never been too popular in Australia. Australian’s are amongst the longest working people on earth. However some more enlightened companies are encouraging a mid-day nap. Science is suggesting that a quick sleep, in the early afternoon, can make you more alert at other times and more of us should be taking a mid-day break for our health and sanity. It clears your mind and refreshes.


So – let’s encourage everyone to take a break for lunch, followed with a short siesta to recharge their batteries and make us all more alert and effective in the afternoon.


Viva la Siesta.


Photo by Wally Salinger on Unsplash

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