Ah the siesta. That great mid-day nap that symbolizes sleep more than anything else. Picture a siesta, and you picture a very chilled out person. But why do some countries have siesta, and some don’t? And more importantly, should we all siesta to be healthier?

Birth of the Siesta

Human beings have been napping forever, so in some form, the siesta is as old as we are. However, the siesta as we know it originates in Spain. The name siesta is derived from the Latin: hora sexta, meaning the sixth hour. (Traditionally, the day’s hours began at dawn, so the sixth hour would be noon – a great time for a nap.)

Siestas are popular around the world, particularly in Spanish-speaking nations, thanks to Spanish influence.

Aside from Spain, siestas are common in:

The Philippines
Costa Rica
See any trends? For the most part, siestas occur in hot climates. This gives people a chance to sleep through the hottest of the sun’s rays, which typically occur midday. In fact, although not all tropical climates sleep during the hottest part of the day, they all get out of the sun somehow.

This inspired the saying that only “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” – as everyone else in tropical climates is either sleeping or resting indoors.

That being said, the West has occasionally flirted with the idea of siesta, although our climate isn’t the main reason. Consider the ‘power’ nap, the businessman’s rapid-fire solution to a hectic life. Sometimes paired with coffee, this is a compressed version of a siesta, to get the most effective sleep possible while fighting sleep deprivation.

But I think this misses the point.

The Culture of the Siesta

For me, the beauty of the siesta is not the sleep itself, but the slower pace of life. A siesta is a conscious effort to take a break, to stop and reflect, and to take time for yourself. In places where siestas are common, you might find that churches, shops, or even public buildings are closed during the siesta hours. Siesta is for resting, be it physically, mentally, or otherwise.

But the honored place of the siesta is far from secure. Spain recently ratified new laws that allowed stores to stay open twenty-five percent longer each week. The implication is that stores would then stay open for the mid-day period usually allotted to siestas. The move was in an effort to fight effects of the ongoing financial downturn by creating more commerce – at the expense of naps.

On the other end of the spectrum, National Association of Friends of the Siesta recently held the first national siesta championship in Madrid. Hoping to revive interest in the traditional snooze, the competition was judged on:

Sleeping as many of the allotted 20 minutes as possible
Original sleeping positions
Loudest snore
Best outfit
The winner of the 2013 event was Mr. Pedro Alfonso Soria Lopez, who was awarded 1000 euros for his efforts.

Siesta Health

Siestas are wonderful for relaxation and creating a slower pace of life – no one can deny that. But are siesta’s good for you? There have been a few big studies on siestas, and the most recent comes out of Costa Rica in the Oxford Journal.

They uncovered a worrisome association between siestas and diabetes.

This study came after an encouraging report out of Greece, which found that siestas could actually help prevent coronary disease. In contrast, the Costa Rica study showed that those who took long, daily siestas were more likely to develop coronary disease than those that siesta less than one time per week.

But how could the innocent siesta possibly cause heart damage?

For one, it is simply an additional period of inactivity in an already inactive modern lifestyle. Lack of physical activity has a well-documented link with heart disease. Long periods of inactivity, including siestas, can bring on:

High blood pressure
High serum cholesterol levels
And the study found that the longer the average siesta, the greater the risk.

Plus, the danger of siestas is connected not just with the sleep, but with the waking. When you wake up (in the morning or any time) your body experiences a significant rise in blood pressure and heart rate. This makes you particularly vulnerable to any potential cardiac problems that may be lying in wait.

So those that had siestas experienced this sudden surge of cardiac strain twice as often as non-nappers (they woke up once in the morning, and again in the afternoon). This increases their exposure to cardiac risk factors.

These health concerns are serious enough that http://www.siestaawareness.org has cancelled their national siesta day as of 2009.

Should We Siesta?

If you’re feeling tired and run down during the day, I would advise against the siesta. Until more studies are done, it isn’t worth the potential risk. Better would be to ensure that you have enough hours for sleep at night, and that you use those hours effectively.

As if the health concerns weren’t enough, a modern day siesta-taker would have to battle their boss tooth and nail to grab a coveted three-hour lunch. Even if you could get the time to sleep at midday, there’s no guarantee you could siesta at all. With a healthy sleep schedule, you probably won’t feel the need to sleep at midday, so long as you get enough at night.

If you get good sleep, but still feel like crashing at midday, take a look at your lunch plate rather than your couch. A big meal full of carbs will make you feel very sleepy, so altering your lunch menu could do a lot to keep you peppy during the day.But don’t throw away your hammock just yet. These potential health risks and lifestyle problems are for long-term, lengthy siestas, taken daily.Nap with gusto on the occasional sunny Sunday afternoon.

About the Author Harold Garza

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