Print Edition: May 21, 2014
Ever wonder why you experience a wave of exhaustion as you enter into the early afternoon? Some call it the afternoon lull. Others may say, “it’s siesta time, baby!”
According the National Sleep Foundation, humans are part of a small minority who have adapted into a category they call monophasic sleepers. This means we allot one segment of our day to being awake, and the other segment of our day — or rather night — to sleep. However, researchers are uncertain if this is indeed the natural sleep cycle of humans. Are we going against the grain of our natural sleep inclinations by forcing ourselves to stay awake during the afternoon? This is, in fact, quite possible. If so, our North American lifestyles do not conform well to the rhythms of the human sleep cycle.
We typically work in eight- to 12-hour shifts: some from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., others from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. (God bless those nurses!), but neither of those time frames welcomes a siesta. I can guarantee your employers would have a hard time paying you to sleep for an hour or two. But are businesses really getting the best bang for their buck when their employees’ work quality decreases due to mental and physical fatigue?
Perhaps we could learn something from Mediterranean and Latin American countries. In Italy, museums, shops, churches, and most businesses close down anywhere between the hours of 1:30 and 4:00 p.m. for what they call riposo, which is essentially a siesta. While tourists find this challenging to plan their day around, locals have been trained to take that time for an extended lunch or even to go home and rest before putting their hand “back to the plough.” They have picked up on the fact that their bodies are telling them they need a break, and I mean a good break, one that facilitates a decent nap — not a 15-minute Starbucks run.
Napping, unfortunately, has a bad reputation. It is associated with laziness, infancy, being an “old fart,” or is not considered essential because our weather is cooler that those other countries. We are just a “busier” culture. But busy-ness cripples our work ethic in the long run. We fail to realize humans need rest in order to function properly and healthy.
Napping studies have shown that a 20- to 30-minute power nap can improve short-term alertness, elevate mood, and enhance concentration. During these short naps, your circadian cycle only reaches stage two, which produces light brain waves called sleep spindle waves: you are lightly relaxed and your body is entering the beginning stages of rest. Waking after this short time offers adequate rest for your body but avoids that groggy feeling many people experience after reaching and then waking from a deeper and longer slumber (stage four sleep). However, if time is on your side and sleep the night before was not, a 90- to 120-minute nap can help you catch up on your missed sleep. Additionally, napping within this longer time frame actually takes your body fully through the entire circadian cycle in which all four sleep stages plus REM are reached. Napping can be effective providing you time it properly.
Some are morning people and others night owls — this is not something that comes with age or youthfulness, it is merely part of our diversity as humans. Some people find themselves needing to hit the hay at 9 or 10 p.m., but wake early. If you fall into this category, you will most likely notice your nap radar kick in around 1:00 p.m. For those of you who get your surge of creative ingenuity at 12:00 a.m., and consider 9:00 a.m. an ungodly hour, you will notice your nap radar kick in later — toward 2:30 or 3:00 p.m.
Naps are necessary, and really should be factored into our day the same way we do our lunch break, or naptime at pre-school — did we not learn there was a reason we were forced to sleep on blue plastic-covered mats for an hour after lunch at age five? We need that nap whether we are five or 40. I wonder how many accidents would be prevented, or how productivity would increase in our job markets, if we learned from the Romans and implemented an afternoon riposo? I think I’ll take the afternoon and sleep on that notion.