We may think of sleep as that elusive thing that we can’t quite catch enough of at times in our life. Sleep, however, is essential for much of our functioning during waking hours.
Sleep is when our bodies rejuvenate cells, tissues, organs, and muscles. It is during sleep that our physical body is restored to health so we can become more efficient when we wake. In fact, research shows that sleep can help prevent many physical ailments such as high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and kidney disease by giving the body the temporary break it needs to renew itself.
Sleep also allows our brain to solidify the new information it learned during the waking hours that day. It allows our brain the rest necessary to form new pathways so we can remember old information and assimilate new information. This, in turn, can improve our ability to learn new things and enhance our problem-solving skills so decisions can be made in a healthy and effective manner.
Sleep is a time when we not only replenish our physical bodies for increased productivity, but also improve our creativity. Often when we dream, our creative juices flow, and while our mind can put together interesting and bizarre material during dreaming, it can also put together innovative ways of solving life’s problems. Our dreams can help us to think outside the box. Sleep gives us the strength we need for emotional well-being and patience in our relationships with others. Sleep allows us to lower our stress level so we are relaxed and refreshed for the next day, emotionally able to handle what the day entails. In addition, sleep allows us to show virtue when engaging with others. It gives us the patience necessary to love our neighbor.
Sleep can be a time when God reveals his will to us. It is essential for our spiritual health. Just as St. Joseph heard God in his dreams, we too can be open to the Lord’s prompting in ours.
“In this moment of rest in the Lord, as we pause from our many daily obligations and activities, God is also speaking to us,” Pope Francis said, referring to sleep in a January 2015 meeting with families during his visit to the Philippines.
The Holy Father later said in the same address:
“Rest is so necessary for the health of our minds and bodies and often so difficult to achieve due to the many demands placed on us. But rest is also essential for our spiritual health, so that we can hear God’s voice and understand what he asks of us. … Do not forget Jesus who sleeps! Do not forget St. Joseph who sleeps! Jesus slept with the protection of Joseph. Do not forget: Families find their rest in prayer.”
Barriers to good sleep
What keeps us from glorious sleep? Sometimes a physical illness, such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, keeps us from getting a good night’s sleep. These are real issues that should be addressed by a physician so that we can get the sleep our bodies require. Other health issues that affect sleep are mental health difficulties like depression, anxiety, and obsessive thinking. These should also be addressed by a professional therapist or a physician.
Many times, though, the quality of our sleep is something we can control. A lack of sleep is often due to our own decisions throughout the day. Our busy lifestyles can keep our bodies and minds from slowing down enough to fall asleep and stay asleep during the night. We often drift off worrying about one thing or another that was not accomplished that day or needs to be tackled the next. What we do during the day affects our sleep at night.
For example, how many stimulants such as coffee, tea, and soda do we consume trying to stay awake during the morning, afternoon, and evening? The consumption of these types of stimulants makes it difficult for our bodies to achieve a normal rhythm of wake and sleep, thereby overruling our natural tendency to renew when resting. As a result of our busy lifestyles, our minds are less able to shut down and rejuvenate during sleep, and we wake feeling groggy and unrested.
Tips for sleeping well
Ways to improve sleep revolve around making sleep a priority. Put a good night’s rest near the top of your to-do list, and then schedule your day around the need for a more natural sleep/wake cycle. During the day, it is important to get enough regular exercise and sunlight. A study in Sleep Medicine showed that people who had difficulty sleeping were able to sleep an additional 75 minutes per night after engaging in 16 weeks of aerobic exercise for 30 to 40 minutes four times per week.
Another study, this one in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, showed that people who had windows in their workplace received 173 percent more exposure to light during the day and consequently received 46 more minutes of sleep at night.
Keeping a regular sleep/wake cycle is also quite helpful in gaining the regularity that is vital to your body, mind, and soul. Going to bed around the same time each night and waking up around the same time each morning keeps your body from thinking it is in a different time zone and therefore decreases a feeling of “jet lag.”
For instance, if you go to bed at 10 p.m. and wake at 6 a.m. during the workweek and yet on weekends stay up until 1 a.m. and sleep until 9 a.m., it can throw your body’s natural cycle off and make it think you are traveling to a different time zone. This increases the feelings of “jet lag” during the few days your body is attempting to adjust to the weekend schedule and then during the next few days as your body is attempting to readjust to the weekday schedule. Thus, almost all week long your body is adjusting to the differences. A regular schedule of sleeping and waking can help your body to regulate itself and prevent you from losing sleep.
When going to bed, there are a few ideas that can help you gain a better night’s sleep. The first one is keeping your bed for sleep only. When you study for school, pay bills, write letters to your family, or work on your laptop in bed, your body and mind believe that your bed is for active occasions, and this makes it difficult to fall asleep
This can be compared to eating every time you sit at the kitchen table. It teaches your body to become hungry when you sit at the kitchen table, so even if you aren’t hungry, your body thinks it is and your stomach begins to grumble. When you take care of daytime activities in bed, your body thinks that the bed is another office area, and this keeps it awake. Thus, keeping your bed for rest and sleep will help your body to feel more tired when you lie down.
One of the most difficult behaviors to avoid and yet one of the most destructive to our sleep is late-night screen time, especially while lying in bed. It can be very helpful to keep the time before bed reserved for quiet time without bright artificial light from your phone, computer screen, or television, as this bright light can signal the brain that it’s time to be awake.
A study in Sleep Medicine Reviews showed that those who engaged in bedtime computer usage went to bed significantly later and averaged 51 minutes less sleep than those who put down their electronics. This study also showed that mobile device use also delayed the onset of sleep and shortened sleep up to 45 minutes each night. Thus, it is important to put down your electronic devices and instead read a book, pray, take a relaxing bath, or use relaxation techniques prior to going to bed. Relaxation techniques can be as simple as deep breathing or systematically tensing and releasing the muscles in your body. (An app that can help is MindShift; there are many others too.)
Lastly, tracking your sleep can be helpful if you have sleep deprivation and want to understand what you can do to increase your sleep. There are many ways to track sleep these days, such as using a Fitbit, an Apple Watch, or a sleep tracker such as one distributed by the National Institutes of Health. A sample sleep diary can be found in the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s 2011 booklet Your Guide to Healthy Sleep, available at NHLBI.NIH.gov (search by the publication’s title).
So, put on your walking shoes, get some exposure to natural light during the day, put down your phone, and make sleep a priority so that you can catch more ZZZZs at night.