• Eating a carb-laden meal will make you feel more sleepy while protein-based meals keep you more alert and sharp and less inclined towards sleepiness. (E+/Getty Images)Source: E+/Getty Images
The Southern Europeans who siesta - nap after lunch - really do have it right. A quick nap could help us recover after a carb-laden lunch and balance our hunger hormones if we're sleep deprived.
By
Yasmin Noone

23 Jul 2020 - 2:46 PM  UPDATED 23 Jul 2020 - 2:46 PM

One of the most relaxing aspects of travelling throughout Southern Europe or South America is the traditional practice of the siesta – a socially acceptable, post-lunch afternoon nap.

Much to the regret of many living in Australia, siestas aren’t commonplace and few workplaces allow you to safely nap on the job after you've just downed a toasted chicken sanga.

Yet Dr Moira Junge, psychologist and spokesperson for the Sleep Health Foundation, favours the practice of siesta and believes that Australians might all be a bit healthier if we followed the example of siesta-practising countries, went with the natural rhythm of our bodies and nodded off after lunch.

“All of us are pre-programmed to need a siesta after lunch but hardly anyone gets one."

“We all experience a post-lunch dip: a distinct drop in our alertness and an increase in our sleepiness after lunch,” Junge tells SBS.

“All of us are pre-programmed to need a siesta after lunch but hardly anyone gets one."

This post-lunch dip is related to a hormonal change in your body temperature and is a function of our circadian rhythm.

[They’ve done experiments in] cave-like conditions for days, where there’s been no clocks, lights or environmental cues. People have been left to their own devices and they still sleep from 11pm to 5 or 6am, and then they feel sleepy again in the afternoon."

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Junge says all human beings will experience the post-lunch dip regardless of whether they’ve eaten lunch. However, if you do eat lunch, the nutritional content of the meal you consume could accentuate your natural desire to siesta.

“Some research shows that eating a carb-laden meal will make you feel more sleepy while protein-based meals keep you more alert and sharp and less inclined towards sleepiness,” she says.  

“From the body of research done on people who drive for a living – like truck drivers – it’s been suggested that these workers should not be encouraged to get pasta or pies at the servo for lunch because they will feel much more likely to go to sleep if they eat these foods, particularly in the afternoon period.

“That’s why the peak period for road accidents is 2.30-4pm, as well as from midnight until 5am.”

“Some research shows that eating a carb-laden meal will make you feel more sleepy while protein-based meals keep you more alert and sharp and less inclined towards sleepiness."  

Meanwhile, the University of Manchester research suggests that the food we eat at lunch contributes to our human need to siesta.

The study, published in the scientific journal Neuron in 2006, shows that glucose (the sugar in our food) stops our brain cells from producing the signals that keep us awake and alert.

Glucose inhibits neurons that make tiny proteins called orexins, which are responsible for the normal regulation of our state of consciousness.

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"These cells are critical for responding to the ever-changing body-energy state with finely orchestrated changes in arousal, food seeking, hormone release and metabolic rate to ensure that the brain always has adequate glucose," says lead author Dr Denis Burdakov in a Science Daily article online.

"This may well explain after-meal tiredness and why it is difficult to sleep when hungry.”

Whether or not the human need for a post-lunch nap is induced by food or exacerbated by the nutritional content of the meal we consume at lunch, it’s generally agreed that we all naturally crave siestas.

If already sleep deprived or don’t have quality sleep at night, you may experience food-related issues, which a siesta could help to address.

“People who are sleep deprived will be the most at risk of having hormones that are all out of whack, including those hormones that make you feel hungry and full."

“We know that adequate sleep helps your hormones – ghrelin and leptin – to regulate appetite and satiety,” explains Junge.  

"People who are sleep deprived will be the most at risk of having hormones that are all out of whack, including those hormones that make you feel hungry and full.

“The siesta comes into it in terms of sleep supplementation. If you feel like you didn’t get enough sleep and you catch a nap that would add to your health profile. Basically, if you had a sleep deficit and then napped, you would be putting more sleep credits into the health bank.

“Napping will never replace the function of getting adequate sleep at night. But for whatever the reason, if you don’t get enough sleep, then napping is a always a good idea.”

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