Napping is biologically hard-wired into our circadian rhythm for two important reasons.
When my oldest daughter, Sienna, was two-and-a-half, we took a trip to Italy to spend a few weeks with my sister-in-law who was living in Rome. I’d been to Rome before — I spent a semester there in college — so I didn’t expect to encounter many cultural surprises. After all, I reasoned, it’s not like things could have changed that much in the few years that had elapsed, right?
What I didn’t account for is how much I had changed. Experiencing Rome as a young, first-time mom was markedly different from experiencing Rome as a college student — and no difference was as profound as the traditional mid-afternoon nap time known as riposo.
In college, on the rare occasions when I had an afternoon free of classes, I made my way to Rome’s center and would occasionally find a favorite café closed or museum doors shut. These were minor nuisances, easily remedied by killing time and waiting until the Italians came back from their afternoon nap.
But as a young American mom, accustomed to running to the grocery store for dinner ingredients after lunch, riposo was a major inconvenience at first. Even worse, I quickly realized that taking a young child out during riposo was a cultural faux pas. It only took a week of rapid-fire chastisement from Italian women for me to learn to keep Sienna at home between 1:30 and 3:30. This meant we went out exploring in the morning, picking up anything necessary for dinner on the way home. By the time we had finished lunch we were both ready for a nap, and after a week or so I realized how much more refreshing this way of life was. I didn’t need an caffeinated pick-me-up to get through the energy slump of mid-afternoon. A nap was infinitely more effective.
At some point, most cultures had an established tradition of the mid-day nap … especially cultures in hotter climates, where the temperature outside soared after noon. But by the end of the Middle Ages, physicians began to theorize that napping could lead to illness. While science on sleep generally has come a long way since then, research into napping in particular is just now picking up steam, according to Medium:
“All humans, irrespective of culture or geographical location, have a genetically hardwired dip in alertness that occurs in the midafternoon hours,” writes UC Berkeley neuroscience professor Matthew Walker in his 2017 bestseller, Why We Sleep ...
“The effects of not taking a nap when you hit the circadian trough can be downright terrifying. In his book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, author Daniel Pink outlines the myriad ways: Danish schoolchildren score worse on tests when they take them in the afternoon, judges are less likely to issue prisoners a favorable ruling, anesthesiologists are three times more likely to give patients a fatal dose of anesthesia, and nurses are 10% less likely to wash their hands. People behave more unethically in the afternoon, too, and sleep-related traffic accidents spike between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.”
There are two reasons why neglecting an afternoon nap can lead to such drastic results. First, napping lowers blood pressure. According to research by the American College of Cardiology, a midday nap is as effective at lowering blood pressure as a low dose of blood pressure medication. No wonder road rage spikes in the afternoon!
Second, napping helps your brain process hidden information and refreshes synaptic connections. A midday nap is basically like a reset button for your brain, giving it the chance to get rid of unimportant information and prioritize what’s important — a task that no amount of coffee is capable of.
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that our bodies perform best by following our natural circadian rhythm … you know, the one God designed for us. So make like the Italians and take a nap already!
Could you be sleeping all wrong?