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Get the Sleep You Need

Archibald Hart, PhD

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Pooped: Don't Shortchange Your Sleep!

"We have become a nation of insomniacs." So says Marie Wylie, columnist for the journal Psychotherapy Networker, a magazine for mental health professionals. "If a vast conspiracy were afoot to create an entire civilization of insomniacs," she says, "it would operate pretty much the way our society does now."

Insomnia. We either deny its existence in our lives or wear it as a badge of honor! For most it's a dreaded word. Everybody experiences it at one time or another. But getting an adequate amount of quality sleep is extremely important. I cannot begin to tell you how much resistance there is in our Christian culture to the importance of sleep. Pastors and parishioners have become convinced sleep is bad for you -- at least that's how it appears. And usually they spiritualize their reasons: "There isn't enough time in each day to do God's work"; "I can't seem to stay in bed any longer, so I just get up"; "Somewhere I heard if you sleep too much, you die sooner." And there are many more! They're all myths, of course. Many have become convinced, through bad teaching I am sure, that sleep is associated with laziness or lack of drive. The truth is it takes adequate sleep to help us perform at our best. So let's turn to the experts and see what research is uncovering.

"Research", a recent Newsweek article on sleep says, "suggests that regular, ample sleep, is one of those indispensables, ranking up there with eating right and exercising." I think they are wrong! It's way above the other indispensables! Besides, we find it easier to accept the other two. It's sleep we struggle with the most.

What are the physical effects of shortchanging sleep? Here are just a few findings:
* It makes you more vulnerable to infections. (The immune system nods off!)
* Hormonal and metabolic systems become disarrayed. (This can hasten the onset of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity)
* And for the first time, it has now been shown to increase the risk of a heart attack.

What about mental and emotional effects?
* Complex thinking is disturbed.
* Learning ability is reduced.
* Memory functions are disturbed. (Both remembering and forgetting are disrupted.)
* Some now theorize that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can be aggravated by disordered sleep.

Failing to fall asleep quickly enough (onset insomnia) is one of the reasons why many don't get enough sleep. A severe anxiety reaction develops over going to bed, and this only exacerbates the problem by increasing the level of stress arousal and preventing one's adrenaline from switching off. Many then try to distract themselves by watching late night TV talk shows, and this only prolongs their adrenaline arousal further.

Other activities that can disturb sleep onset include being addicted to late-night TV, computer games or just net surfing. Sadly, cybersex is also taking its toll on sleep as more become hooked on it. Drinking too much caffeine can really upset the brain's sleeping patterns, so avoid it totally, in all its forms, after midday.

Now to my favorite question: how much sleep do we need? I always enjoy the surprised gasps I get from Christians when I tell them. From diaries, letters, and literature, we know that a century ago most Americans got about nine hours sleep a night. Now the average is seven hours -- and dropping! Lab experiments have found a normal, healthy adult has a body clock set to about eight and a half hours of sleep. I insist, however, it should be nine hours (our forebears were right) because sleep cycles come in one and a half hour blocks and we need to complete the last cycle so we can have enough "dream sleep" -- the deepest and most important part of sleep.

There is a lot more I can say. My new book,Sleep, It Does a Family Good: How Busy Families Can Overcome Sleep Deprivation (Focus/Tyndale Books), can provide you with some practical suggestions on how to improve your sleep, and the National Sleep Foundation has an excellent Web site (www.sleepfoundation.org) with useful pointers.

Finally, let me say the sweetest sleep of all comes from a mind and heart at peace with God and others. Bitterness, hatred, anger and a host of other bad emotions will always be sleep destroyers. So listen to King David, who in the midst of feeling the whole world was against him, was able to sleep the sleep of peace: "I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the LORD sustains me. I will not fear the tens of thousands drawn up against me on every side" (Psalm 3:5-6).

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