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Secrets of the Siesta and High-Tech Mattresses

In my journey into the mysterious realm of slumber, I've been poking my groggy noggin into all the fascinating nooks and crannies of the world of sleep and dreams.

I've learned a lot, and have tried to pass my experiences on to you; but my notebook is crammed with a lot of interesting stuff I haven't found a way to share with you yet. So in this dispatch, I thought I'd gather up some of the best random bits and present, for your enjoyment, the following slumbo-potpourri.

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Secrets of the Siesta

You probably think, as most folks do, that the custom of the siesta, common in Latin and Mediterranean countries, developed as a way to beat intense afternoon heat. In fact, it has nothing to do with climate at all; instead it's a response to the natural rhythms of the body.

We talked before about your body's circadian rhythms, which tell you when to sleep and when to wake. Research shows that these rhythms have two daily low points — times when your body's metabolism is at its slowest, your energy and vitality are at an ebb, and the urge to sleep becomes more powerful.

The first of these low points occurs between 1 and 4 o'clock in the afternoon — traditional siesta time. So the siesta is really not an attempt to escape the blistering sun, but a very sensible acknowledgment of the body's natural needs. (By the way, if you think it's those heavy lunches that make you drowsy in the afternoon, think again; research shows that sluggish feeling is caused by the the circadian cycle and not the digestive process).

During the second circadian low point, which comes between 1 and 4 a.m., our bodies dip even more deeply into torpor. Research shows that these are the hours when night-shift workers are most prone to accidents. It's also a time when the body is least able to fight off physical crisis, and some large scale studies on mortality show that these early morning hours, dubbed by poets as midnight of the soul, are the time when a high percentage of deaths occur.

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The circadian cycle has its high points, too. The first peak comes between 9 and 11 o'clock in the morning, the second between 7 and 9 p.m. These are times when vitality and alertness surge, and even sleep-deprived people may have difficulty falling asleep.

Beds of the Future

Most of us, by far, still sleep on conventional innerspring mattresses, but recently two companies have offered sleepers some innovative springless alternatives.

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Swedish Tempur-Pedic mattresses, for example, are made from a high-tech, high-density "visco elastic foam" developed in the space program, which literally molds itself to the contours of your body. Manufacturers claim that Tempur- Pedic mattresses are so comfortable and supportive that they drastically reduce tossing and turning, from 80 to 100 times a night on a standard mattress to as few as 18 times on the Tempur-Pedic.

Air beds are another new mattress mode. The Minnesota-based air-bed maker Select Comfort promises superior comfort from sleep on their pneumatically pumped-up mattresses.

Select Comfort air mattresses, which come in three levels of plushness, look like standard beds, but they use high-quality rubber air chambers instead of innersprings for support. The air chambers can be adjusted to any level of firmness, and twin chambers in queen- and king-sized beds allow two sleepers to choose individual settings.

If you decide to check out this brave new world of mattresses, use the same approach you'd use to shop for a standard mattress — kick off your shoes and lie down for a nice, long bed-test, make sure you get a solid warranty and, finally, trust your body to recognize the best bed for you.

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