What makes sleep so important?
Slow-wave sleep (deep sleep) stimulates the production of serotonin and other depression-fighting chemicals in the brain. The lack of these chemicals causes depression. Chemically, depression represents nothing more than the lack of serotonin and other chemicals that are produced by the brain during sleep. Thus, sleep builds crucial chemicals that prevent a downcast spirit and depression. God designed the human body to sleep—and important illness preventative brain functions occur while we sleep.
For ministers in stressful assignments, the lack of sleep eventually catches up with them. Depression results and kills their motivation to work for about two years. Sadly, I see dozens of ministers every year who experience burnout, almost always induced by unforeseen crises. Without enough margin that results from sleep, they unwittingly grow susceptible to burnout. Their resilience margin shrinks in a slow and insidious process that goes unnoticed. They usually function well for several years as their margin gradually dwindles. Then suddenly, an unforeseen crisis or two puts them beyond their ability to cope.
Stephen Ilardi (2009, 35-36) explains the process as follows:
When laboratory rats are experimentally deprived of slow-wave sleep for several days at a time, their brains start to malfunction and they become seriously ill. Humans react in much the same way. After just a few nights of slow-wave sleep deprivation, most people report intense, aching fatigue. After a few more days, they begin to feel physically ill. They also start moving and speaking more slowly. Many people even complain of a sensation of physical pain (even though they can’t quite tell where it’s coming from). In this sleep-altered state, mood turns despondent, social interest disappears, thoughts turn negative, appetite becomes erratic, and concentration wanes. In other words, with the disappearance of slow-wave sleep, the core symptoms of depression quickly emerge.
Thus, inadequate sleep stimulates a downcast spirit and depression. When adults consistently shortchange their sleep by a couple of hours per night, they grow increasingly susceptibility to depression. Their margin gradually wanes over a period of months and even years. After their margin dwindles completely, most bouts with depression start with several weeks of chronic sleeplessness. And, most depressed individuals often find themselves awake in the middle of the night—they simply cannot remain asleep. Their normal slow-wave sleep pattern gets totally disrupted.
What sleep behaviors characterized Adam and Eve’s lifestyle?
At what time of the evening did Adam and Eve go to bed? Without the advent of electric lights they probably went to sleep shortly after sundown. Possibly, they lit a campfire for an hour or two, but after a hard day of tending a rather large garden, they probably fell asleep as soon as the fire subsided and maybe even before that.
At what time of the morning did Adam and Eve awake? We don’t really know when they awoke, but without alarm clocks to awake them, they probably stayed asleep until the sun came up.
Thus, how many hours did Adam and Eve sleep? Again, we can’t say exactly where they lived or how many hours they slept each night. However, if they lived near the present Tigris and Euphrates rivers, sunrise and sunset were probably around 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Thus, after allowing them to sit around a campfire for an hour or two in the evening, they probably slept at least eight hours per night, maybe even as much as ten hours per night.
When we choose a different lifestyle than the one designed by God, we may suffer some consequences.
Interestingly, individuals in most of the primitive cultures of the world still sleep eight to ten hours per day.
How does Adam and Eve’s probable sleep pattern compare to yours?
When I ask this question of ministers, I usually see a lot of smiles and hear a lot of chuckles. In two recent seminars (of about 130 participants each), only 5-6 raised their hands when I asked how many sleep at least 8 hours per night. Usually, a hard-core few appear proud of their “work ethic.” If they behaved conscientiously, however, they would build up a margin against burnout supported through sufficient sleep.
Just like Adam and Eve, we are made in God’s image. So we share similar strengths and weaknesses to Adam and Eve. God designed an environment that almost forced Adam and Eve to sleep eight or more hours each night. Today, technology enables humankind to literally “burn the candle at both ends,” working late into the night and rising to start work well before dawn. Because of electricity, we can choose a significantly different model of rest than the one He provided. While electricity can serve humankind in a wonderful way, we can use it to abuse ourselves.
How much sleep do I need?
Most individuals need at least eight hours of sleep per night. During this time, the brain replaces a large amount of the serotonin that gets consumed during the day. Usually, the replacement process takes at least eight hours. If you lead a highly stressful life, you may need more. Thus, without at least eight hours of sleep, your margin against burnout and depression gradually dwindles away. Some ministers get by with less than eight hours of sleep, but even one extra crisis or an unexpected stressor leaves them with an insufficient margin against burnout and depression. Rather than asking, “How much sleep do I need,” we invite you to ask, “Given the level of stress in my lifestyle and the potential for crises in my work and country, how much margin do I want against burnout?”
Is your “call” important enough to prevent burnout?
The American Sleep Foundation reports that the average North American secular individual obtains 6.7 hours of sleep each night. I find that many ministers sleep less than the average secular individual. In addition to seminar participants, numerous pastors and missionaries within my fellowship report that they get only five to six hours of sleep.
Frequently, when I ask ministers to get eight hours of sleep, they respond that they simply can’t stay asleep that long. They suffer from insomnia. Their insomnia often stems from unhealthy sleep habits that they carefully honed over many decades. I advise them to start by replacing bad habits with the following behaviors, recommended by Ilardi and many others:
- Get a physical checkup. Sleep apnea, hyperthyroidism, chronic pain and several other physical problems inhibit sleep. If you find difficulty with insomnia, get a physical checkup to determine if a medical problem prevents sleep. If a medical problem inhibits your sleep, address it immediately. Whatever threatens your sleep, threatens your ministry.
- Avoid violent movies and TV shows in the evening. Violence stimulates the brain for about two hours and causes insomnia. Avoid anything that includes violence (including news shows that depict violence) at least two hours before bedtime.
- Turn off the TV at least 30 minutes before bedtime. When we watch TV, the story continues to stimulate our brain even after we turn it off. At least 30 minutes before bedtime, turn off the TV and let your brain focus on getting ready for bed.
- Retain your bedroom only for sleep. This rule gradually trains your body to expect sleep whenever you get into bed. Thus avoid reading, sowing, eating, and other activities in bed. Sex is the only exception to this rule. Sex releases serotonin which aids sleep.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol at least 8 hours before bedtime. The half-life of caffeine is approximately 4.9 hours. In women taking oral contraceptives this is increased to five to ten hours. And in pregnant women the half-life is roughly nine to eleven hours.Consuming two or more cups of coffee increases the half-life even longer. Common caffeine levels (shown by Wikipedia) are:
|Product||Mg of Caffeine per serving|
|Dark chocolate (45% cacao content)||31|
The body can metabolize one ounce of alcohol per hour. So many individuals assume that a drink or two in the evening affects their sleep minimally. However, alcohol also dehydrates the body. So these same individuals often wake up thirsty in the middle of the night. If you drink alcohol, avoid it within three hours of bedtime. If you drink within four hours of bedtime, rehydrate your body with extra water.
- Avoid sleep anywhere other than your bed. Train your body to recognize that sleep goes with your bed, but not elsewhere.
- After lying awake for 15-20 minutes, leave the bedroom and find something relaxing to do. But make sure that you initiate only a relaxing activity. Video games, late night TV, reading, and home cleaning act more like stimulants than relaxers. With a relaxing activity, you will usually grow tired within about 30 minutes, at which time you can return to bed and start a restful sleep. Many individuals report that prayer and praise act as the best possible sleep aids. A few individuals feel guilty about falling asleep while praying, but God understands our need for sleep. I would rather fall asleep while talking to God than abuse my body with insomnia.
- Get up and go to bed at the same time every day, even on weekends and during vacation. This trains your body and mind to sleep and awake at consistent times of the day.
- Avoid naps—if you have a sleep problem. Instead, teach your body to expect sleep whenever you go to bed at nighttime.
- Avoid bright lights at night. Light stimulates the brain into thinking that it is daytime. Within the last hour before bedtime, use dim lights.
- Avoid discussing problems during the late evening. Conflict and tension stimulate the brain and prevent sleep. As adults, we can save these issues to discuss the next day either in the morning, or immediately after we arrive home from work.
- Avoid heavy meals within the last two hours of bedtime. As your body digests food, it usually keeps you awake
- Avoid strenuous exercise within three hours before bedtime. Exercise releases endorphins that keep you awake. Schedule your exercise routine early enough to avoid interfering with sleep.
- When all else fails, ask your physician about taking melatonin. If he or she approves, start with a low dose (3 mg) and increase as you find that you need more. Adults usually produce less melatonin as they age. Many retirement age adults find that they need a small dose of melatonin as a nightly supplement.
Reflection: Using the suggestions above, what are your personal plans for promoting good sleep hygiene?