Scientists don’t really know *why* we need to sleep, they just know that if we don’t then our functionality decreases both on a physical level as much as a mental one. We become irritable, make poor decisions, and may appear to be somewhat flummoxed; your body aches, your mind becomes nebulous, you feel engulfed, and all your body wants is the comfy confines of your bed…
So, how do we keep going? Well, in some cultures there are totally accepted means of giving our bodies the rest they need at times that may seem strange to most of us.
In several countries around Western Europe it is common practice that people will close shop and head home for a couple of hours, the reasons for which vary from country to country; in France and Italy they make time to be at home with family, prepare a from-fresh meal and take a break from the daily routine.
The Italians use the term riposo (which literally translates as “a break”), and even the Greeks have mesimeri (loosely meaning “quiet time [around midday]”), and the for many years this “quiet break” in the day has been virtually sacred in these countries… that is until more recently.
In the past several years these practices have been in decline as the world economies have become distressed by financial turmoil, ultimately leading to a transcontinental culture that is becoming more British/American by the decade as “busy-bee syndrome” sets in and our dutiful workforces become ever-beleaguered by the pressures to perform and “bring home the bacon”.
However, there are still some countries and cultures around the world that hold dear to similar praxes. The one bearing the greatest resemblance to the aforementioned is unequivocally the siesta.
The beloved “nap” of Spanish [and other Hispanic] culture(s) distinguishes itself from those “quiet breaks” in that sleeping is an integral part. Usually, the siesta will be a break that spans a couple of hours – much like the riposo and mesimeri – but also makes time to recharge the proverbial batteries.
More often than not though, foreigners not so familiar with the exact parameters of the practice will just go right ahead and sleep for a couple of hours (completely neglecting the point that time is meant to be set aside to sit down and eat with family first).
The point to make here isn’t a cultural one though, but rather, a practical one. See, by sleeping for nearly two hours, your body will go through a whole circadian rhythm (a 90min cycle that plays a massive part in our physiological functions in conjunction with our sleeping pattern – I’ll write another post dedicated to Circadian Rhythms soon). Yet napping is not supposed to last more than about twenty to thirty minutes; the reason being that if you fall asleep for much longer, your body will start to slip into its “deep sleep” phase, which it won’t then come out of until your “nap” period reaches somewhere much closer to the ninety minute mark.
‘In fact, this is probably why the “power nap” became so popular…’
This is why we will often feel extremely groggy when we only sleep for about 40-60mins [and don’t complete a 90min cycle]… If our body gets brought out of “sleep mode” smack-dab in the middle of a cycle, we will be physiologically at a disadvantage because all of our hormones will be out of whack as our sleep-promoting ones will still be firing, and that’s what consequently causes us to feel so sleepy.
The beauty of a 20-30min nap is that you get all the benefits of resting without the negatives associated with the hormonal imbalance of having entered into deep sleep and being woken up midway through.
Napping is great for alleviating stress, boosting alertness, and even improve learning and memory. Maybe this is why students like to nap so much – all that cramming can get exhausting, and so, a little break to refresh the mind can reap dividends. In fact, this is probably why the “power nap” became so popular after Cornell psychologist James Maas coined the term back in the 80’s.
We’ve all heard the term (and most likely used it without realizing its origins), but the power nap never quite caught on as a cultural practice – not like the siesta anyway. Granted, there is a gradual resurgence occurring as scientists and researchers start to show just how effective napping can be. Just look at huge companies like Apple and Google – while having quite the “alternative” work culture in general, one thing that stands out is how they encourage taking naps if/when necessary with the inclusion of “sleep pods” in the workplace (designated quiet areas where one can curl up in a covered “chaise longue” for a bit of shuteye).
But let’s now take a trip to the Far East – Japan specifically. In the Land of the Rising Sun, they too have a cultural phenomenon linked to napping. They call it inemuri. It more or less means “being present while sleeping”; now this might seem like something of a paradox… After all, if we’re asleep, surely we can’t be “present” in terms of being physically and psychologically aware of our surroundings, right? Well, the Japanese believe it is possible; but there’s a time and a place for inemuri. What might seem strange to some of us is that it is absolutely acceptable to “nap” in the workplace! That’s right: sleeping on the job is completely kosher!
In the West (mostly referring to the UK & USA) we have a work ethic that instils in us this innate inability to voluntarily “switch off” at the office; no, we must work ourselves to the bone to meet that quota, to make that deadline, to earn that bonus. So, rather than taking a break or nap, we bludgeon our nervous systems with caffeine in order to keep pushing through. We overload our body to get it over the finish line.
The beauty of inemuri is that Japanese work culture has recognised that a truly hard and dedicated worker will be pushing themselves day in, day out anyway, therefore, you can justify a little nap at work if you’re getting results. It should be noted though, that it is infinitely more acceptable for more “seasoned/veteran” workers to inemuri at work; younger employees / those at the bottom of the corporate/social ladder (who should naturally have more vigour and stamina) won’t get away with it.
So, a top level manager could be forgiven for sleeping for twenty-odd minutes of an important meeting, but the point of inemuri is that you are “present” enough to “get back with the program” (i.e. become lucid) at the click of a finger.
‘We think that coffee, Adderall, and other pick-me-ups are the answer…’
If you’ve ever watched anime – take Dragon Ball Z, One Piece, Seven Deadly Sins [for example] – then one thing you may notice about the heroes in each of these shows is that they often nap at the most seemingly unbelievable moments (when they should be totally “present” – in so far as what we Westerners behold “presence” to mean). This is a literal illustration of inemuri in practice; the beloved hero works so hard every second of every day to protect their family / friends / colleagues / the world, that it is actually acceptable/understandable that they might need to spontaneously nap and regain their energy.
So, the Method Behind the Madness is this: taking a nap may be one of the most effective and healthiest ways that we can stay at the top of our game *without* introducing floods of stimulants into our body in order to keep trucking on. Simple fact of the matter is that the human body is incredible in all that it can do, and we still are only just scratching the surface when it comes to understanding our full capabilities.
We think that coffee, Adderall, and other pick-me-ups are the answer to peak performance; but really, if we just listen to our bodies, and learn how best to apply the principles of napping [and counting circadian rhythms], we can boost our mental and physical abilities without the need for introducing foreign substances to our system.
Whether it’s just to take a break from the hustle and grind, be with family, and rest, or if it’s to improve your daily efficacy, taking a power nap, siesta or inemuri could just be what the doctor ordered.
Hopefully, this post will have opened your mind to exploring alternative/more natural options when it comes to rest and recovery. One extremely important thing to note, however, is that if you suffer from insomnia or any other fatigue-inducing health condition, then I strongly advise you to consult your doctor or physician first.
As always, stay fit and stay healthy, and I’ll catch you in the next post.
Yours in Training,
Chris Atkinson | Master Personal Trainer, SDO