Unlike other healthy choices, sleep can seem sinful. Society honors emergency workers who sometimes work long hours. Consultants ask leaders, “What keeps you up at night?” as if we expect good leaders to lose sleep worrying about complex problems.
Adventist Christians add to this societal disregard for sleep by associating insomnia with being industrious (see Prov. 24:33, 34) or working for Christ’s return (see Matt. 24:42). The writings of Ellen White, sermons, and even the hymns we sing use sleep as a metaphor for spiritual indifference. We are urged to “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying!”1 All of this could suggest that Christians should make do with as little sleep as possible.
Human beings, however, require restorative sleep to be truly alert and fully awake. Our psychological and physical health rely on regular, natural sleep. Those leaders wrestling with problems all night would arrive at wiser, less-impulsive decisions by sleeping on them!
Most parents of toddlers know the effects of acute sleep deprivation. A sleepy 3-year-old tends to become unhappy, demanding, impulsive, and rude. If the parent suggests, “Honey, you need a nap,” the child is likely to retort, “I am not sleepy!”
Sleep-deprived adults become depressed, inattentive, impulsive, and impatient as well. Adults also underestimate how sleepy they are. You and I make imprudent decisions when sleepy. We also wound those around us by impudent comments.
In addition to these changes in our behavior that occur immediately, science is starting to understand that brain cells need sleep to discharge waste products. During sleep brain cells shrink slightly, allowing waste products to flow out between them. One of these waste products that gets cleared during sleep is a protein called beta amyloid, which accumulates in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Hence, good sleep may eventually prove important to our long-term health as well.
Just being unconscious does not mean our brains are benefitting from restorative sleep. When we sleep naturally, our brains run through a series of stages from light sleep to deep sleep, back to light sleep, and then, briefly, dream sleep (rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep). Each of these cycles is completed in 90 minutes. Unless our brains cycle through these stages, we will not feel rested when we awaken.
We naturally sleep in these 90-minute cycles. Most adults need five or six of these sleep cycles to feel well rested. Most adults get their best-quality sleep earlier at night—before midnight. Those in their late teen years and young adults, however, often naturally tend to do best by going to sleep and awakening later.
Certain conditions interfere with natural sleep. Loud snoring is not a joking matter. It can suggest obstructive sleep apnea, a condition in which the snorer stops breathing and briefly awakens many times each night. Those who suffer from this condition will not recall awakening, but will seem sleepy during the day. Obstructive sleep apnea not only disturbs the sleep of others, but it can shorten the life of the sufferer.
“I have never heard of anyone dying of snoring,” some might object. Two prominent people whose deaths have been associated with sleep apnea were U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and movie actress Carrie Fisher. If someone you know has loud snoring and brief stoppages of breathing, please encourage that person to see a physician who understands sleep disorders and their treatment.
Depression and anxiety disrupt sleep. Poor sleep worsens depression and anxiety. This cycle can feed on itself. While simple measures such as exercise and getting restorative sleep help reduce depression and anxiety, seeking counseling or using antidepressant medications or both help restore natural sleep.
If you usually awaken feeling well rested and ready to start your day, you are likely getting restorative sleep. Keep doing what works for you!
If you feel groggy or need to be forced to awaken, you should consider following a few simple, natural rules to improve your sleep. You can find many of these suggestions online from your friends at the Adventist Health Ministries Department of the General Conference:2
Keep to a regular schedule of bedtime and awakening.
Get regular exercise. Even as little as 10 minutes of exercise each day can improve sleep.
As far as possible, sleep in comfortable, quiet, and dark surroundings.
Do not use your bed as an office or entertainment center. Reserve beds for sleeping and sexual intimacy. This helps our brains associate the bed with a place to sleep.
Avoid heavy eating or strenuous exercise just before sleep.
Plan for sleep not in terms of hours, but rather in 90-minute cycles. For example, if you want to awaken at 7:00 a.m., go to sleep at 10:00 p.m. (for 9 hours, or 6 cycles, of sleep), or 11:30 p.m. (for 7.5 hours, or 5 cycles, of sleep).
Avoid medicines that disrupt natural sleep cycles. Many such medications, including opiates, benzodiazepines, antihistamines, and barbiturates are often marketed as sleep aids. These drugs make people unconscious but interfere with the natural sleep cycles.
Do not toss and turn in bed. If you have not fallen asleep after about 20 minutes, get out of bed, go to another room, and do a calm activity such as reading until you feel sleepy. Then return to bed.
Practice habits that allow your mind to relax.
A search of the Internet will provide many lists of suggestions on sleep hygiene similar to those listed here. But when they come to ways to “turn your mind off” to prevent fretting over worries, these lists offer elaborate suggestions.
Those reading this article, however, likely believe in a God who cares for us. Here are three simple steps to developing a relaxing routine to prepare the mind for sleep.
If those last three suggestions sound familiar, perhaps your parents or a spiritual mentor taught you to pray at bedtime. It turns out that a bedtime prayer not only helps our relationship with our Father in heaven, but it may also help us to get the restorative sleep we need each night.
Daniel Giang, M.D., a neurology specialist, is associate dean for Graduate Medical Education at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California.