Rhys Blakely, Science Correspondent

The Times

Gerry Gajadharsingh writes:

“For a few years, my lovely wife allows me to have an afternoon nap, usually on a Saturday and/or Sunday, after a long working week in London, where I tend to get up very early and go to bed very late because of my work commitments. Essentially, I am “catching up” at weekends. The research below suggests that this may well reduce adverse cardiovascular events and I suspect it may also contribute to other positive health benefits, as yet to be formally confirmed.

 For some societies an afternoon nap is considered normal, I was born and brought up in the Caribbean, in my early years and there an afternoon nap is also quite common. For northern hemisphere countries is often considered a “lazy” thing to do, perhaps the evidence below may allow people to reconsider. It’s a bit like taking time to relax, another “lazy” thing to do, despite increasing evidence that strategies for relaxation, such as breathing, meditation and now an afternoon nap, allows the body and kind to down regulate our stress hormones and reenergise our systems.”

Having an afternoon nap once or twice a week is linked to a sharply reduced risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke, research suggests.

People who did so had half the chance of suffering a heart attack, stroke or heart failure. It did not seem to matter how long their naps were, researchers from the University Hospital of Lausanne in Switzerland said.

The link between heart health and naps held true after other potentially influential factors were taken into account, including age, blood pressure and cholesterol readings.

However, napping more than twice a week was found to have no benefits and there were signs that people who took a siesta three or more times a week tended to be less well overall.

The researchers suspect that among the subjects they studied those taking a siesta once or twice a week reduced their stress levels by catching up with physical rest, and that this made them healthier. Those who slept during the day more often may have had underlying health complaints that left them fatigued.

The study was observational, which means that it could not prove that napping boosted heart health. The findings do not mean that some individuals who nap every day — a common habit in China and Spain — will not be in robust health.

Heart and circulatory diseases cause more than a quarter of all deaths in Britain and somebody is admitted to hospital due to a heart attack every five minutes. Strokes cause more than 36,000 deaths across the country each year and are the biggest cause of severe disability while nearly a million people are living with heart failure.

The study looked at 3,500 subjects living in the city of Lausanne who had no history of cardiovascular disease. Each participant was aged between 35 and 75 when they were recruited between 2003 and 2006. Information on their sleep and napping patterns for one week was collected. Their health was then monitored for an average of five years. Most of the subjects — 58 per cent — said they had not napped during the previous week while 19 per cent said they took one to two naps. The remaining 23 per cent napped at least three times a week.

Those who napped most frequently — taking between three and seven siestas a week — tended to be older and male. They were also more likely to smoke, to weigh more, and to sleep for longer at night, too. They also reported more daytime sleepiness and more severe obstructive sleep apnoea, a condition in which the throat walls relax and narrow during sleep, interrupting normal breathing.

During the monitoring period, there were 155 fatal and non-fatal cardiovascular disease “events”, including heart attacks and strokes.

The results were published yesterday in the journal Heart. Yue Leng and Kristine Yaffe, of the University of California at San Francisco, who were not involved in the study, said that research into the benefits of napping had been hampered by the absence of a “gold standard” for defining and measuring naps. This made it “premature to conclude on the appropriateness of napping for maintaining optimal heart health”, they wrote. However, they added: “The study of napping is . . . also a promising field with potentially significant public health implications . . . It is time to start unveiling the power of naps for a supercharged heart.”