For many, the term “siesta” conjures visions of flamenco dancers, orchards full of olives, and other romanticized images of early 20th century Spain. While the siesta is known for being part of Spain’s rich cultural history, we can learn a lot from its tradition and what it means for us in the 21st century.
What Is a Siesta?
Siesta is a Spanish word referring to a nap or rest break, particularly after lunch. The word siesta comes from the Latin base “sexta,” which means sixth and refers to the sixth hour, or “sexta hora,” of daylight.
What Time Do You Take a Siesta?
By definition, a siesta occurs six hours after dawn. If the sun rises at 7 a.m., the “sexta hora” would occur just after noon. Most people do not time their siestas so literally, however. Traditionally, siesta takes place after lunch in the midafternoon.
A small Spanish town called Ador, which still practices a daily siesta, closes all businesses between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. each day. Historically, Spanish companies that built a two-hour break into the workday schedule extended the working day to around 8 p.m., a practice that continues among many Spanish workers today.
Where Did the Siesta Originate?
Although most people associate the siesta with Spain, the practice actually originated with ancient Romans in Italy, where it is called a riposo. Similar midday nap breaks are common around the Mediterranean and in many Latin American countries, where the midday is often hot. Before air conditioning existed, the siesta offered a much-needed break from the hottest hours of the day.
How Common Is the Siesta?
In the present day, a daily siesta is much less common in Spain than many people likely think. A 2016 Spanish survey found that about 58% of people in Spain surveyed say they “never nap.” Nearly 18% of survey respondents said they take a siesta four or more days per week, and about 24% take a siesta on occasion.
In recent years, former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy introduced a plan to end the siesta, and the Catalonia region of Spain has considered a proposal to scrap the midday break. Doing away with the siesta would allow many workers to end their workdays earlier, aligning Spain’s standard work schedule with its European neighbors.
Although ending the siesta is controversial, data suggests it might benefit workers. Spanish workers put in more hours than the annual average among European Union countries, while sleeping fewer minutes each day than their counterparts in major EU nations such as France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
Although not a widespread practice, some countries outside of the Mediterranean area currently encourage midday napping. For example, parts of Japan have nap pods available for midday breaks, and “inemuri,” or falling asleep at work, is viewed as a positive sign that a person is working hard. In the U.S., some sleep researchers are trying to spread the concept of a power nap, which would allow people to briefly sleep while they are at work.
Benefits of Siesta
Short naps have been shown to refresh and rejuvenate. Studies show naps can improve mood, as well as physical and mental performance. A nap that lasts between 10 and 20 minutes appears to help people feel less sleepy and more alert, giving a boost that helps them continue working throughout the afternoon. Studies show that people can benefit from a nap even when they are not sleep deprived, and naps can help reduce stress and even strengthen the immune system.
However, naps longer than 30 minutes might not provide the immediate benefits a person seeks. If a person enters deep sleep during their nap, which often happens around the 30-minute mark, they can wake up feeling groggy. This grogginess is called sleep inertia, and it may impair performance. People hoping a siesta will rejuvenate them and improve their afternoon work might want to set an alarm for 30 minutes or less in order to avoid sleep inertia.
Should I Siesta?
Deciding whether or not to take afternoon naps is a personal decision that should be made on a case-by-case basis. Research suggests napping provides many benefits. That said, if you feel like you absolutely must nap, consider speaking with your doctor. Studies have also shown that in some people, napping is linked to health issues. Your doctor can help you determine if your desire to nap is healthy or indicative of an underlying problem.
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