The Science of the Spanish Siesta

Spanish siesta

Ever wonder why shops in Spain are closed in the middle of the day?  Its known as a siesta, and guess what? Its good for you!   A siesta is a midday nap. The word is derived from the Latin term hora sexta meaning the “6th hour from sunrise.”  

The siesta initially evolved to help people avoid strenuous activity in the hot mid-day sun. Although often associated with Spanish tradition, it was actually an integral part of Islamic culture in ancient times well before Spain adopted the practice.  In the 1940’s, under Franco’s rule, Spanish law changed to be better aligned with its ally at the time, Germany; this allowed businesses to open one hour later than many other European countries. As a result, today many shops open in the late morning and close in the late evening with 3 hours of closure during the day (usually 2pm to 5pm). Ironically, now a days, many Spaniards get less sleep and work longer hours than persons from other European countries. More recently, there has been pressure in Spain to end siestas, and to instead switch to a 9am to 5pm business schedule to increase productivity.

Where in the World Is It Practiced?
Although the siesta is not limited to Spain, it is most often associated with this country. In actuality, not only is the siesta a common practice of Spain, but also in many other areas including Greece, Italy, as well as in some parts of South America, Southeast Asia and India.


Health Benefits of the Siesta

Sleep is particularly important for better health overall. Regular sleep lowers your risk for a number of conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, depression and Alzheimer’s.  Sleep also improves performance and memory in the short-term.  Our bodies get sleepy in two phases-once during day and again at night. Because of this, the midday siesta, or nap, offers a rejuvenating boost to help us function in our daily activities.

There has been a great deal of research on sleep as well as on the mid-day siesta. One study showed a link between obesity and sleep duration. Persons who slept for less than 5 hours a night had an increased risk of obesity as compared to persons who slept for 7 to more than 8 hours a night.  In this same study, a 30-minute siesta during the day  lowered the risk of obesity.  Some people may sleep during the day for other health reasons rather than just as a normal nap.  In people who sleep as a cause of fatigue from other health problems (such as heart problems or diabetes), siestas longer than 30 minutes because of symptoms of a more serious problem. Research on the health benefits of siesta may not apply to these groups.

In persons who are otherwise healthy who take short siestas during the day there is evidence that brief sleep periods are linked with lower rates of heart disease, lower blood pressure and increased periods of alertness after the nap.

guy sleeping


How to Do It

 Our natural sleep cycles are 90 minutes long.  According to sleep expert Dr. Sara Mednick, author of “Take a Nap”, the amount of sleep needed depends on your individual goal. For a brief power nap, to promote alertness, she recommends a 20-minute nap. For a memory boost, she recommends a 60-minute sleeping period, although some people may feel groggy afterwards since this amount of time is shorter than the natural sleep cycle.  For a total reboot and long-term memory improvements, Dr. Mednick recommends a 90-minute nap. Ideally naps should be done between 1pm and 4pm so that nighttime sleep will not be interrupted. People who have problems sleeping at night may want to avoid a midday siesta if it interferes with nighttime rest.

The Short and Sweet

 Sleep is an integral part of promoting good health. Daytime siestas, between 1 and 4p, for 20 minutes, can often help improve alertness.

Antes de hacer nada, consúltalo con la almohada
Before doing anything, sleep on it -Spanish Saying




Bursztyn M. Fiction. Sleep Medicine. 14:3-4, 2013 Jan.

Bursztyn M, Ginsberg G, Stessman J. The siesta and mortality in the elderly: effect of rest without sleep and daytime sleep duration. J.Sleep. 25:187-91, 2002 Mar 15.

Naska A, Oikonomou E, Trichopoulou A, Psaltopoulou T, Trichopoulos D. Siesta in health adults and coronary mortality in the general population. Archives of Internal Medicine. 167:296-301, 2007 Feb 12.,

Sayon-Orea C, Bes-Rastrollo M, Carlos S. et al.  Association between sleeping hours and siesta and the risk of obesity: the SUN Mediterranean Cohort. Obesity Facts. 6: 337-47, 2013.

Zaregarizi M, Edwards B, George K  et al.Acute changes in cardiovascular function during the onset period of daytime sleep: comparison to lying awake and standing. Journal of Applied Physiology. 103:1332-8, 2007 Oct.

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