Life in the Mediterranean has got a pretty good track record when it comes to health. There’s the celebrated Mediterranean diet (which I definitely battle to achieve), active lifestyles, plenty of red wine – and the siesta. Now the siesta has been around for a while, with its origins dating back to when Latin was not just a GCSE subject. The Spanish translation literally means ‘nap’. Built into a way of life, the siesta is designed to battle the combined heat of the Mediterranean climate and the omnipotent post-lunch energy dip that inflicts the many.
Do they know something we don’t know?
You see, if we put a microscope over our non-Mediterranean lifestyles it will show a very different health landscape – high fat and sugar diets, economically-forced sedentary work-focused lifestyles, about two bottles of red wine too many each week, and definitely not enough sleep. To unpick all of this may see us here a while (and I have some redecorating that needs doing) and so what I’d like to do is chat about the nap and ask the question: is there science in the siesta?
Now it would probably seem a little remiss of me to talk about the nap without talking very briefly about its big brother – sleep. Time for a quick thirty second recap: Sleep is broken into a series of ninety-minute sleep cycles. Each cycle sends you from light non-REM sleep into deeper REM sleep before starting the cycle again. You may therefore have about 4 to 6 cycles each night. Of course, for you and I, these sleep cycles are often seamlessly continuous and form our traditional night of sleep. The reality is that many of us don’t get enough sleep and we’ll go into this more another day. For now, let’s look at how we can repackage that need for sleep – in a nap.
Now, being a doctor, I need to make things very simple because otherwise I will invariably struggle, I assure you. As such, for my benefit – and I hope yours, let’s first establish by what we mean by a nap, by properly defining it. A nap is a short period of sleep that affords you that transient detachment from your conscious mind and body. Like most factors that affect our physical and mental function, the nap has been pretty extensively researched. The research has concluded some key functions of the nap for you:
- To enhance your ability to process information and consolidate learning
- To reverse a state of information overload that you may be experiencing
- To reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease (don’t ask me how – likely multiple factors at play here)
- To increase your levels of alertness and your motor (i.e. muscle) skills
- To avoid experiencing a ‘burnout’ which presents as frustration, irritation and reduced physical and mental performance
Before we dive into the two different types of naps I am going to drizzle just a little bit more science over our Mediterranean nap plans. You see, during a day your brain constantly absorbs and processes information. That will of course vary depending if you are, for example, in a mentally complex and demanding work state – or sat on the sofa, in your pyjamas at three in the afternoon with a re-heated pizza slice (it’s your workout ‘rest’ day, I know) watching Bargain Hunt. Anyway, we digress – back to the science. Now, a part of your brain called the visual cortex will in turn slowly become saturated with information from your day as it is continuously tested and engaged mentally. Similar to a muscle in your body, it reaches a threshold where it no longer can function effectively. This is your big knocker banging on the burnout door. This burnout threshold however is not all bad, particularly if you can recognise it in time. Just think about that point as the safety mechanism, a way of your body saying “whoa, buddy just take your foot of the peddle for a minute”. In doing so, you’ll allow your brain to process and preserve the information already there and not waste new incoming information that has nowhere to go and cannot be consolidated. That is where sleep, and as a short-term solution, naps come in as a means to cement that final stage of learning and processing.
So how do we get a that necessary mental ‘chill pill’?
The first type of nap is your classic power nap. The power nap is a twenty-minute short sharp nap that is long enough to take you into the early shallower stages of your sleep but not into deep (REM) sleep. It’ll afford you brief physical respite and allow that mental pressure value to be released in order to let off some steam. This way you can wake from a power nap feeling physically and mentally refreshed and ready to tackle the ongoing challenge. Remember though, it won’t be long enough to cement and consolidate any learning – you need deep REM sleep for that – and that’s where your second type of nap comes in.
The second nap is called the consolidation nap. The consolidation nap is a longer nap of around ninety-minutes that potentially takes you through a full sleep cycle via deep REM sleep. The beauty of this longer nap for you is that it allows for your brain to undergo what they call cortical plasticity. This, in a nut shell, means memory and learning is cemented on your brain. Of course, beyond this, the other mental benefit is that while asleep your subconscious continues to process your problems in the absence of all that conscious background noise that fills your life. That’s why you sometimes have those Eureka! moments after a nap. I am of course, still waiting for mine.
The bubble had to burst some time. Writing this I know for all of us, the above is all well and good – in theory. In the real world, we all often have busy hectic, insatiable lives that don’t afford time for twenty-minute (let alone ninety-minute) naps. We also don’t have a Government (unless you are reading this in the Mediterranean somewhere, in which case you have probably just woken up from a wonderful enforced nap) that endorses the siesta. I for one cannot imagine my medical practice suddenly demanding I nap each day – despite teasing me day in and day out with a patient examination couch that could definitely double as a nap worthy bed. We have 24 hours in our day and still that is not enough time for us to do all what we want to do.
There’s the rub however. We need to be malleable, adaptive and smart in finding ways to go about our days so that we can implement physical and mental performance enhancing measures, like the nap. After-all in the long run it is better for your performance and your health. It is also in theory, more efficient. And anyway, who doesn’t love a nap. So, consider ways in which you can incorporate a nap into your life. Perhaps it will be task and time specific, for example when revising for exams or doing a weekend of interview or meeting preparation. Or if you have the time, add in one long nap a week, perhaps after work mid-week to just re-charge.
The magic bullet? Well, if all that fails, good luck and move to Spain.
See you next week.