I’m really good at sleeping. That’s not to say I sleep a lot; quite the contrary. Each night, with few exceptions, I close my eyes, tumble into deep, sweet sleep and, 5 or so hours later, I wake refreshed and eager to start the day. I get so many more productive waking hours especially first thing when no-one else is up and around. How good is this! Or, at least, that’s what I used to think and how wrong I was!
A few months ago, I read an in-depth study on sleep deprivation. For me, the term conjures up thoughts of torture, mind control and interrogation techniques! The more common reality is that our lifestyle deprives us of enough sleep and it’s very hard on us both physically and mentally. I can think of times when my body clock got seriously out of sync as a result of jet lag, or working night shifts or extended offshore passages on our small sailboat when sleep felt like a luxury.
And, of course, there are many legitimate and, indeed, pressing reasons why we may have difficulty sleeping. Responsibility for a new baby or young child, caring for the sick and elderly, anxiety for an upcoming challenge like an exam or job interview, health concerns, financial concerns, relationship concerns, bereavement. Even joyful anticipation and excitement, perhaps for a happy event such as a graduation, a wedding, a long-anticipated holiday, may interfere with our sleep patterns. The list goes on and on.
A full explanation of the consequences of long-term sleep deprivation is outwith the scope of this article but the findings of a number of respected studies are well documented and fully acknowledged. It’s been demonstrated that regular sleep deprivation puts us at risk of a number of serious medical conditions, including high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, depression and dementia.
I can’t emphasise enough that chronic and persistent sleep deprivation is a serious medical problem and if you think that’s the case for you, I strongly encourage you to seek medical help from a qualified medical practitioner. The focus of this article is the effect of being routinely careless about our sleep habits and to consider what steps we might take to remedy the situation.
So what does this have to do with us as Christians? Well, scripture emphasises the importance of taking care of our bodies. ‘Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.’ (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
‘So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.’ (1 Corinthians 10:31)
I usually think of these verses in terms of sexual morality, gluttony, and alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse. And I think these are all legitimate applications. However, it’s only recently that I’ve come to consider the implications of other ways we neglect to take care of ourselves; sleep deprivation being one of them. It’s hardly feasible that poor health resulting from poor lifestyle choices would ever, in any way, glorify God.
For me, one of the most wonderful verses in the Psalms is; ‘I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful, I know that full well.’ (Psalm 139:14)
This is so true. God’s creation of mankind is extraordinary. The human body is beautiful and complex beyond our imagination. And we were created and designed to sleep – not just for the many physical benefits but also for a number of spiritual benefits.
Sleep is a spiritual reminder of how frail we are. Everyone sleeps, but God never does. ‘He will not let your foot slip – He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.’ (Psalm 121:4)
This is an extraordinary example of God’s love and protection. Have you ever sat up with a loved one who’s sick? Sometimes, just our presence is enough to let them drift off to sleep because they know that if they wake in distress, we’ll still be there; ready to comfort and take care of them. And God does that for us. When our minds won’t settle and quieten, we can take our worries and anxieties to the Throne of Grace – and leave them there!
Sleep is an act of trust because we’re never more physically vulnerable than when we’re asleep. Although most of us live in relative safety, for many people throughout history and, sadly, even today, sleeping makes us vulnerable to physical danger. When we lived on a sailboat, we took turns to keep watch during night passages. I could sleep peacefully because I knew my good man was at the helm and likewise he could trust me when he needed to sleep.
And God does that for us too! We can trust Him to watch over us in every situation. Indeed, He can quite literally command the wind and the waves (see Mark 4:35-40 ) so we can trust Him to calm the storms in our lives and to bring us safely through them.
‘In peace I will lie down and sleep, for You alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.’ (Psalm 4:8)
‘I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With Him at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure.’ (Psalm 16:8-9)
While our primary reaction to any of life’s challenges is always to rely on God, there are a number of practical techniques we can employ to help us sleep better.
Sleep Hygiene refers to our sleep habits and routines and good sleep hygiene is conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease. Research does demonstrate quite clearly that people fall into two main categories; lark and night owl. One type isn’t better than the other except, perhaps, for the practicalities of work schedules but, whenever possible, we should respect how we’re wired when it comes to sleep and adapt our sleep habits accordingly. Here are a few pointers that may help you to adjust your sleep patterns.
Take it slowly! We should lengthen our sleep time by very small increments – about 10-15 minutes a week. I tried to change my sleep habits quite abruptly and I did a great job of completely messing up my body clock! I had to start again from scratch and now, after a few months, I average upwards of 7 hours sleep per night.
Decide on your wake up time and stick to that no matter what. Try not to lie in on week-ends and holidays. Research shows that we can’t actually catch up on lost sleep and if we occasionally sleep late all we do is throw our sleep rhythms out of kilter. If you’ve had a very late night and are feeling the effects, it’s better to add a few minutes sleep over a number of consecutive nights rather than sleep late on the week-end.
Once your morning wake time is established, set an evening sleep time and try to stick to that too. Interestingly, the morning wake time is more important and you can vary your evening sleep time by up to 30 minutes but it’s best not to.
Stay away from electronic lights. Computers, TV and smartphones all produce ultraviolet light that stimulates your brain. Try reading instead – a real book – not your Kindle! This was quite a challenge for me because I did quite a lot of work on my computer in the evening and I also like reading e-books on my iPad.
Try to establish ideal sleeping conditions. Your bedroom should be very dark (pitch black if possible) and quite cool (between 15 – 20°C).
Avoid eating and drinking before bed. Late night snacks, however comforting, tend to wake us up because of the calorie intake and the need to digest what we’ve eaten. A glass of water before sleep is thought to have heart health benefits. The downside is that your sleep may be disturbed by the need to go to the toilet. My personal compromise on this is that I drink a small glass of water before sleep and I have bottled water beside the bed if I wake up thirsty.
Our mental and physical systems love routine and order so, where possible, it’s good to establish habits and practices that support us.
Morning routine: I’m quite organised and very much a creature of habit so many of my early morning activities are almost automated! The most precious morning activity is my Quiet time and there’s nothing automated about that – except the need to do it. I can’t imagine starting my day without it.
Evening routine: A short pre-sleep routine sends a subliminal message to our brains and, therefore, to our bodies, to prepare for sleep. In the last few months, I’ve changed to reading as a means of relaxation instead of late night TV and, more importantly, I’ve begun to practice a short Quiet Time before I turn in. It’s a wonderful way to start and end the day.
‘It is good to praise the Lord and make music to Your name, O Most High, proclaiming Your love in the morning and Your faithfulness at night.’ (Psalm 93:1-2)