Sleep: Why is it so Hard?

Sleep Header Before I begin this blog, I have to throw two disclaimers out there:

#1) Anyone who knows me will probably have a few good chuckles while reading this post. This is because anyone who knows me at all knows that I am a far cry from having a handle on the area of “sleep” in my own life. But I figure that makes me an expert on struggling to get enough...right?

#2) If you are currently living with a newborn (or a child of any age, for that matter) who is currently not sleeping through the night, you may want to skip this post. The following content has no words of wisdom or advice for those who literally cannot obtain a full night's sleep no matter how hard they try. If you fall in this camp, I'll pray for you. Truly. Those days and nights can be oh-so long.

So now that I've covered my bases, let's talk about sleep. Oh, glorious sleep. This period of rest, which has been referred to by scientists and doctors as a “fundamental human need” is something we truly cannot live without it. For when God created the world, He of course did so in a very systematic and organized way. And on that very first day, He created light and He created darkness -- and there was a reason for that. The Bible says,

And there was evening and there was morning – the first day. Genesis 1:3

But yet I've struggled with following this pattern of evening and morning for the majority of my adult years. I'd like to blame my lack of adequate shuteye on motherhood, but that wouldn't be entirely true. The truth is, the bedtime battle of getting into bed (and in turn, getting out of bed) on time is one I've fought for most of my life. Through conversations with numerous friends and the reading of many articles on the topic, I have realized that I am not alone. In fact, the first full week of next month has been set aside as “Sleep Awareness Week” (03/02/16 – 03/09/16). You think it might be something other people fight, too?


So why is it such a struggle? How can going to bed and getting “good sleep” feel so good but yet be something I put off and cheat myself out of on a daily (or nightly) basis? These are the questions I've asked myself over the past several months as I began to sincerely evaluate my lack of decent sleep patterns. And here are the answers I've come up with (perhaps you can relate to some of them):

  • The house is finally quiet and I can finally have my “me” time. This is HUGE for me. Living with a husband, four children under the age of 6, a dog and a couple dozen fish (ok, so the fish don't contribute to the chaos all that much but they do demand a few moments of attention now and then!), there's barely a minute of peace during the daylight hours. When the night falls and I can finally hear myself think, this is sometimes the first time I have truly sat down all day.
  • My husband and I are finally alone. I think this one speaks for itself, but in all honesty the “after bedtime” hours are sometimes the only time we have to discuss adult topics, such as parenting, other relationships, money, or even just the nitty gritty of the plans for the upcoming weekend. My husband and I also find great pleasure in having certain TV shows we “binge” from Netflix or Hulu together (it's kind of like an “in home date” almost!) and it's so tempting to watch “just one more”...
  • The later evening hours seem like the perfect opportunity to get stuff done. Somewhat relating to the above, it's nice to finally not have anyone else demanding my attention. My over-productive, Type A personality sees this as the perfect opportunity to make headway (or finish?) a project, whether it be something home-related, blog-related or even my latest knitting endeavor. Again, putting something down that I find so much pleasure in doing is tough.
  • I lack the self-control to just go to bed. Plain and simple. I want to stay up, for whatever reason and I'm too short-sighted to see just how much that decision to not go to bed is going to affect me (and others) in the days that follow.

I used to think that indulging in my "night owl tendencies" was a sign of how driven and motivated I was. And while that may be partially true, the physical and mental effects of consistently receiving too little sleep far overshadow any benefits I may be experiencing from staying up late. Once again, I know that I am not alone in my thinking. An article which appeared early last year in Newsweek says:

Sleep is perceived to be the enemy of efficiency: inescapable wasted blocks of time that can't be converted into anything of broader use to society.

Yikes. Do we really think like that?

I think we've all heard or read lists on the importance of sleep in our lives and the many benefits getting a good night's sleep can bring to us as far as health and well-being are concerned. But in doing a bit more “on purpose” research for this post, I was surprised to learn a couple more which really struck a chord with me:

  • Getting a good night's rest can actually assist in weight loss. There are multiple reasons for this but one of them is so simple: getting yourself to bed at a decent time eliminates late-night snacking when your metabolism is at it's lowest. Being well-rested all gives you better will-power and a clearer thought pattern when making decisions about what foods you put in your mouth the following day. Boosting fat loss and the burning of more calories also contribute to the weight loss factor of sleep. You can read further details about this in the article written by Women's Health magazine.
  • Recent research has shown that sleep actually aids in the flushing of certain neurotoxins out of the body. One of these toxins is amyloid beta which is an amino acid that can eventually contribute to the development of Alzheimer's. Many other conditions which lead to the loss of brain cells are also a result of the build-up of damaged proteins in the brain – proteins which may indeed be discouraged when your head spends an adequate amount of time on the pillow. You can read more about some of this research in this article which appeared on BBC News back in 2013.

Alarm Clock

But I have a feeling you already knew that sleep was good for you. And you probably already know why you're not getting enough. Right? But besides identifying the problem, what else can you do to help fix it? In my recent heightened awareness of my need for sleep, I've put my mind to trying to follow a few seemingly-simple (but really tough!) guidelines:

  • Committing to a bed- and wake-time. As difficult as it is, I've been making a conscious effort to keep the time I turn in and the time I roll out of bed as consistent as possible. As a part-time working mom, this is pretty tough since no two days during the week are exactly the same when it comes to schedule. But on the other hand, having 4 little “alarm clocks” in the house definitely keeps me from ever banking on being able to sleep in to make up for an extremely late night. When selecting a target time for hitting the pillow, I looked at what time would give me 8 hours of sleep but still allow me to set an alarm so that I could be awake and upright before I heard the pitter-patter of little feet. While it's oh-so tempting to lay under the covers until I no longer can due to the demands of my children, starting the day that way is not good for anyone involved.
  • Refusing to start a project that I know I won't be able to finish or put down partially done. I know myself pretty well and if I'm being honest with myself, I know which projects are going to be too tempting to stop halfway through. So if it's already 9pm? I don't get involved. Instead I'll look ahead to the next week or two or even month (depending on the nature of the project) and figure out a block of time that would allow me to make headway on it but not interfere with my much-needed shuteye.
  • Starting the “process” of going to bed early enough. I'll never stop being envious of my husband's ability to decide he's turning in and then successfully be sawing z's no more than 5 minutes later. But it's not that way for me. Getting myself between the sheets is an entire process that involves checking the locks on the doors, making sure the often-forgotten lights are turned off, making preparations for the next day, removing my make up, checking on the kids, and the list goes on. Therefore, if I'm aiming to be in bed by 10:30pm, I better not start moving in that direction at 10:25pm and expect to succeed.
  • Refusing to use my phone while lying in bed. Having always been just a tad behind on technology (I only acquired a smart phone within the last year or so) and just a bit "anti-social networking", I never thought this would be a problem for me. But is it ever. Again, I don't fall asleep nearly as fast as my husband. So while I'm laying there awake, my mind comes alive with articles I'd like to look up, things I'd like to shop for or friends I'd like to check up on. After all, when is a better time than midnight to do some email inbox housekeeping? That answer is pretty much anytime. The same Newsweek article which I referenced earlier says, “Research shows that every time we check our email, Twitter feed or Facebook timeline and find a new piece of information, we get a shot of dopamine—a chemical our brains release to simulate pleasure.” When talking to a friend about this the other day, she said to me, “Why don't you just keep your phone in a different room if it's an issue?” Well, of course I had my reasons: My phone is my alarm clock. We don't own a home phone so what if there were an emergency and someone needed to get a hold of me? I use my phone as a flashlight if I have to find my way to the bathroom or one of the kids' rooms. Despite all of my excuses, I managed to figure a way around them. I purchased an old-fashioned alarm clock. I keep my phone in our bedroom but NOT in reach of the bed. And I uncovered one of my many trusty flashlights and keep it in my nightstand. Problem solved – my cell phone is no longer stealing my sleep. (And I'm also paying more attention to my husband! ;)
  • Making a list of all of the reasons I need and want to get a good night's sleep. This list includes many of the things I've mentioned above but also some very simple truths, such as the fact that I have more patience with my kids when I'm well-rested, I feel better about myself, my skin looks healthier, I drink less coffee, and the list goes on and on. When I'm tempted to burn the midnight oil, I pull out this written list and remind myself just why it is so important not to.

As I stated above, I am definitely a work in progress. But progress is being made and I ask God daily to continue to help me fight this inner battle of mine. Do you share in this struggle at all? If so, tell me I'm not alone in the comments below. Have you found anything else that helps you stick to a sleep schedule? Tell me that, too – I need all of the help I can get! I'll be praying for you, too. And then I'm going to bed ;)


Light, Bright, and Busy. No Time For Sleep!


Confession: I am sort of a huge insomniac. And so are several of the ladies who write for this blog. Chances are, if you are reading a blog post here on Holy Hen House, it was written between the hours of 9 p.m. and midnight, after our squirrelly children finally slipped off to dream land. 11 p.m. is the average time we start frantically messaging each other for help. “This post is supposed to go up tomorrow and I can’t figure out how to add a picture to it!” “Grr...I keep hitting refresh and nothing’s happening!” “Ugh, why is our server going so SLOW?!” “Is anyone awake who can help me format this paragraph?” And inevitably, someone IS awake and able to help out at 11 p.m. Or midnight. Or even sometimes 2 a.m. It’s not like we all get to sleep in every morning either. We all have children to care for bright and early in the morning, jobs to attend, or projects to accomplish. So why in the world do we stay up so late?

I know that as a mother, one of the big reasons I often stay up so late is because evenings after my children go to bed are “me” time. I spend all day long caring for other people and I relish the time I have to myself to eat chocolate and not have to share it, watch non-G-rated television, or surf the internet without little hands pounding the keyboard. In the evenings, I am able to enjoy adult conversations (and other activities) with my husband, read books, or work on projects that can only be accomplished without tiny meddling fingers.

These are all nice, enjoyable, and seemingly well-deserved things, but I often binge on my “me” time to the point where I let my desire for it trump God’s command to care for myself and my family, and to connect with Him regularly through rest and spiritual renewal. What begins as a few hours of evening self indulgence too easily devolves into a 2 a.m. bedtime following “just one more episode” or “just finishing up this conversation.”

Ephesians 5:29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church.

Mark 6:31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

Other times I stay up late not because I want to, but because I believe I have to do so out of pure necessity. I am so busy, overbooked, and overworked that I virtually cannot accomplish all I set out to accomplish during the day. I am left toiling late into the evening believing my own effort is the only thread holding together the loose fabric of my life. I feel like if I fail to single-handedly accomplish my earthly goals, this thread will break and my life will fall apart. And so I “burn the midnight oil,” trusting not in God but in singlehandedly overcoming the limits of my human existence in order to “succeed in life.”

Non-surprisingly, I’m perpetually exhausted.

The Bible tells me there is such a thing as being too busy. So why do I continue to pile extra work on top of myself in order to achieve worldly ends like money or acclaim or admiration from others?

Psalm 127:2 In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat— for he grants sleep to those he loves.

Proverbs 23:4 Do not toil to acquire wealth; be discerning enough to desist.

Luke 10:40-42 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Sleep is a precious gift from God. Recognizing the importance of the human body’s need for rest and renewal, both physically and spiritually, God went out of his way to design the world to accommodate this need. We all know He created the world in six days and on the seventh day He rested. He did this in order to show us how to structure our own work week, devoting one day each week to spiritual rest and renewal:

Exodus 20:8-11 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.

He did this out of love for us, enabling us to get some much needed spiritual rest, not because of His own needs or desires.

Mark 2:27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

Even before God made the Sabbath, he designed another important feature of creation that enables us to rest.

Genesis 1:16-18 God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good.

God gave us night time.

Darkness is a gift given to us by God to enable us to rest physically on a daily basis.

If you doubt the purpose of this gift, just take a look at the way God designed our bodies to react to darkness. The absence of light triggers the pineal gland to release a hormone called Melatonin. Melatonin plays a significant part in helping the body to become drowsy. In short, darkness makes us sleepy. When the sun goes down, human beings are meant to rest.

So many time I read the creation story and think, “Man! God thought of EVERYTHING when he made the world!” Darkness is one of those things I would have never considered if I were in charge of creating a universe. (Good thing I wasn't in charge, right?) Yet God set the balance of darkness and light so beautifully in motion that it ebbs and flows exactly to our benefit throughout the calendar year. In the summer when everyone is out and active and farmers are planting and harvesting, the sun illuminates our happy outdoor activities for long hours. In the winter, when nasty weather rages outside, people draw together indoors and conserve their energy. Isn’t it convenient that God provides us with so much darkness in which to sleep at the time of year we tend to be huddled indoors keeping warm and inactive anyway? (And yes, I realize those of you in Alaska or Arizona may not experience exactly the same type of marriage between weather and light. My solution for you? Move to Wisconsin. Har har har! I know. I’m hilarious).

The truth is, I blame my fatigue on the kids, motherhood, work, or on the busyness of life in general, but in truth a lot of my exhaustion occurs when I willingly and purposefully ignore the rhythm of night and day that God installed on the fourth day of creation for the benefit of physical rest for all of His creatures.

You see, as a modern day American, I don’t always see darkness as a blessing from God. I don’t appreciate the seasonal ebbs and flows of days and nights that God set into motion. I particularly don’t appreciate all the darkness I have to endure in the winter. It’s dark by 5 p.m. again? Ugh. Depressing. I tend to see darkness as an obstacle or hindrance that must be overcome with artificial lighting if I’m ever going to be a productive human being. And so when it gets dark I turn on all the lights, the tv, and my computer, and instead of turning to the Lord to see me through the night, I drown out the darkness with light and with noise. In my over-stimulated, loud, bright world, I don’t need rest. I don’t need quiet reflection. I don’t have to think much about taking care of myself, my family, or connecting with my Lord. Instead, I gorge upon passive entertainment, shallow accomplishments, earth-bound busyness, and idle conversations until I am not only physically exhausted, but spiritually burnt out. If I am constantly filling my ears and my eyes with sound and light to the point of exhaustion, how will I notice the Lord or hear Him when He speaks to me in a gentle whisper?

Psalm 46:10 “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”

I know that staying up too late and sleeping too little is a problem of mine, and trust me, I have a loooooong list of excuses I use to justify this behavior, only a sampling of them mentioned so far. I have vowed to change my poor sleeping habits so many times, telling myself that tomorrow I’ll go to bed earlier or that I won’t stay up so late or that I’ll set an alarm and when it goes off I will get up and go to bed no matter what I’m doing. But none of that has worked for me, because all of it involves relying on myself and my own strength to overcome my poor relationship with physical and spiritual rest.

Last weekend I was thinking about this very problem of mine, feeling very tired, and I said a quick prayer that God would enable me to get more rest. How God would answer this prayer, I didn’t know, as I already knew that removing obligations or changing my life circumstances does little to alter my sleep patterns. I have been drowning my evenings in external stimulation since long before becoming a mother.

Shortly after I prayed for more rest, I noticed a friend posted an article to my facebook wall about bimodal human sleep patterns (humans sleeping “twice” per night), a topic we have discussed with interest recently. From there I found myself reading other articles about sleep and happened upon one on artificial light and its detrimental effects on human sleep patterns. A lightbulb went off *pun intended* and I decided I would try embracing the rhythm of light and darkness that God designed on the fourth day of creation. That night, around 7 p.m., after my kids were in bed, I turned off all the lights. By 7:30 p.m., I turned off my computer and all other distracting light sources. I then lit a candle and read my Bible by the light from the flickering flame. And as I meditated on God’s Word, a beautiful thing happened. I grew tired. I went to bed at 8:30 p.m. that night, and not begrudgingly out of a sense of forcing myself to go to bed earlier, but willingly, as I drifted into a cozy and serene state of comfortable drowsiness, having spent much needed relaxing time with my Savior.

Is this the way God intended human beings to go to sleep? Ending my day in the quiet darkness with prayer and meditation with my Lord certainly felt nicer than my typical method of keeping my starving brain alive through the evening on a steady diet of cat videos and internet memes.

I won’t pretend I've been forever rid of my compulsion to stay up late at night, but I can see that my need for physical sleep and my need for spiritual rest in Jesus can both be met in a beautifully complementary way. With God's help, I'll be striving to embrace the rhythms of day and night, darkness and light, activity and meditation, that God Himself designed.

Do you feel you receive enough physical and spiritual rest?