Caught napping: Germany's surprising siestas

A new study turns the European stereotype of a somnolent south and a neurotic north on its head.

"Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."

Maybe. But it also makes him sleepy during the daytime. And a new study has found that the European nation that takes the most siestas is – wake up and listen to this – Germany.

Yes, Germany. The allegedly industrious, serious, and undoubtedly prosperous Germans are way ahead of their supposedly indolent, relaxed, and carefree Spanish cousins when it comes to taking a nap in the middle of the day.

According to the results of a five-year study by American sleep researchers, published in last month's edition of Neurology, 22 percent of Germans reported sneaking a siesta at least three days a week. Another 4 percent went so far as to take two naps on the same day.

Spaniards, on the other hand, have almost abandoned their most famous and envied tradition. Only 7 percent of them snatch an afternoon snooze nowadays.

The study turns the old European preconception about a somnolent south and a neurotic north on its head.

Just behind Germany in the cat nap championship comes Britain, ahead of Italy, Portugal, and Spain.

The research by an international team of sleep specialists, reported in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Neurology, was designed to measure European levels of narcolepsy, an illness characterized by "an imperative need to sleep suddenly and for brief periods."

But it also turned up all sorts of unexpected information about people whose desire to doze off after lunch does not fit the clinical definition of "imperative," even if it sometimes feels that way to you and me.

The researchers did not deeply explore the reasons why the Germans and the British, generally acknowledged to be alert enough, take 40 winks for every 20 or so that the Italians allow themselves. But they do suggest that the way the northern Europeans vary their bedtime more than their southern counterparts may have something to do with it.

At the same time, the habit of taking a "power nap" is spreading in some northern European countries, while succumbing to the siesta is seen as a sign of weakness among dynamic young Spaniards and Italians, keen to shake off the traditions of their parents.

Some of the differences in national nap habits can be explained simply enough, by the length of time people spend in bed during the night. It is no wonder that the British top the tables of feeling "at least one form of daytime sleepiness" when they sleep for an average of only six hours and 50 minutes at night – 35 minutes less than the average Spaniard.

And you can't blame a German for grabbing a bit of shut-eye in the middle of the day if he has got up at 6:23 a.m., like his average compatriot – a full hour and 13 minutes earlier than a typical Spaniard.

The Spaniards, on the other hand, are notorious for living it up late at night – you cannot get served in a Madrid restaurant before nine in the evening – and that is a habit that they have maintained even without the respite of a siesta. They are the last Europeans to turn the lights out, at 11:43 p.m., according to the study.

The Germans have been asleep by then for nearly an hour, and end up sleeping for only 18 minutes less than they do in Spain.

So when you feel your eyelids drooping in the middle of the day, rest easy. If it's good enough for the Germans, it's good enough for the rest of us.

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