Spirituality and Mental Health: The Importance of Sleep

Sleeping Buddha, Oriental Gardens, Monte Palace Tropical Garden, Madeira, Portugal, by H. Zell, from Wikimedia Commons

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.

(Psalm 127:2)

I grew up hearing that our essential needs were water, food, shelter, and clothing. Research in the last decade has shown that sleep is just as important as these, and may be second only to water. Going without sleep will kill you faster than fasting from food.

Most of America is walking around chronically sleep deprived. Our sleep deficit shortens our lifespans, diminishes our creativity, makes us more susceptible to disease, reduces our emotional intelligence, increases the risks of depression, anxiety, dementia, and diabetes, and causes more traffic accidents than drunk driving.

Some Christian leaders of previous generations valorized going without sleep. A properly sanctified person, they argued, would only need four or five hours of rest. They believed too much sleep was a sign of laziness or sloth, one of the seven deadly sins. The urgency of saving souls or working for the kingdom was more important than sleep. Here is an excerpt from a sermon by John Wesley:

“I am fully convinced, by an observation continued for more than fifty years, that whatever may be done by extraordinary persons, or in some extraordinary cases (wherein persons have subsisted with very little sleep for some weeks, or even months,) a human body can scarce continue in health and vigour, without at least, six hours’ sleep in four-and-twenty.”

The consensus of sleep scientists is that an eight-hour sleep opportunity is ideal. Six is far too little. John Wesley concedes that when some of his contemporaries advocate three or four hours, they are being a little bit extreme.

I’d like to say we know better now, but capitalism and the Protestant work ethic continue to praise those who work late into the evening and into the next day. “Pulling an all-nighter” is a sign of dedication—even though the quality of our study and work gets worse the longer we go without sleep.

I believe sabbath rest is supposed to be a reminder of the importance of rest, not just once a week but every day. Nearly a third of our life is spent in this state of altered consciousness, when our brains store and rearrange information and regenerate their learning and feeling capacity. But like fussy infants, we refuse to sleep because we don’t understand the suffering we are inflicting on ourselves.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be drawing from Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, and sharing some reflections on the Bible and other religious texts.

Prayer:
Creator of Sleep, God of Sabbath Rest and Restorer of Life, help us to sleep well. Change our society into one that values the importance of sleep.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr.