The Power of Sleep

I’ve had three major conflicts recently. What has been particularly disturbing is that one has been with a close friend, one with a colleague, and one the other night with an immediate member of the family. All in one week! None of these clashes was foreseen, and none ended well. As much as I worked for some sort of reconciliation, there was no interest on the other person’s part. It was as if my feelings did not matter. Hard as I tried to reason with these people, each one was completely indifferent. It was all extremely hurtful and depressing. I found myself wondering whether it even matters to move on with life. And then I woke up, breathless and perspiring–again.

Dreams sometimes come in a series, like these three. I have never attempted to explain my dreams; I’m not at all certain there is some deep, hidden meaning. For a season, I had this one recurring dream that I was preaching in my pajamas, with my notes in disarray, and the front pew was lined with seminary professors. I am sure there are dream experts that can read dreams like a palm reader claims to read one’s hand. Maybe I should consult a Dream Dictionary. Maybe I am living a conflicted life, or I carry great insecurity when it comes to preaching. Maybe there are things that have been left unresolved. Or maybe…

…dreams are indicators I just fell into a deep sleep. If so, I have done some serious sleeping recently. It helps that I recently took a week of vacation up on the Pend Oreille River, where things are so still you can hear the quiet. After several weeks of going at full press, with minimal sleep, it was nice to get away, sleep a full eight hours at night, and recover.

Sleep has always been a bit of a mystery for me. I sometimes wake up in the morning feeling more tired and sore than before I went to sleep. I am not always certain it is that restorative. Does it really matter if I sleep four or six or eight hours? My brother in law is a classic workaholic and claims that anything more than four hours a night is actually debilitating. Sometimes, sleep can be an interruption in the schedule. But according to a recent article in Time, “The Power of Sleep,” sleep matters a lot. According to the author, Alice Park, the latest research suggests that a healthy sleep habit is a matter of life and death.

It’s when the lights don’t go out, lots of things get neglected (students on minimal sleep—beware!).

It’s when the lights go out, the brain starts working. Glial cells spring into action, slowing the electrical activity. Neurons power wash the brain, removing dangerous toxins. Because the brain consumes a lot of energy, there is a lot of trash to clean up. Hormones, enzymes, and proteins get balanced. Eventually, the nerves are lulled into a state of quiet, and one moves to a period of REM (I think this is when dreaming kicks in). The sleeping brain cells shrink, making room for the brain and spinal cord’s fluid to slosh back and forth like a dishwasher that keeps flushing through to wash the dirt away. Perhaps this explains the strange sounds I hear at night.

It’s when the lights don’t go out, lots of things get neglected (students on minimal sleep—beware!). Muscles that would normally repair because of sleep do not repair. Cells that move into action to repair damaged skin are not unleashed. The pancreas does not break down the sugar as effectively, and bone building is short circuited. Brain cells that don’t get their rest eventually stop making enough antioxidants, building up free radicals. When this happens, neurons start dying off. And once these cells are gone, they are gone for good. Scary!

Scientists tell us that over time, chronically sleep-deprived brains start to look much older than they really are. In a recent Atlantic article, it noted that sleep deprivation can lead to shrinking brains, and no amount of “catch up’ sleep can reverse the effects of sleep loss. Molecular garbage, that hasn’t been picked up, starts to affect the neighborhood. Healthy cells are impacted, interfering with things like memory. It could be that Alzheimer’s is caused, in part, by tired brains, where a buildup of amyloid protein isn’t cleared quickly enough.

For many who have little choice to get enough sleep due to economics (two jobs, etc), or a new baby, or those final papers–this is not encouraging news. For others who simply are on the go, who like to broadcast their minimal sleep habits as a badge of honor, as a way of saying they are busy and important and super human, these studies would say it is really a symbol of stupidity. Instead of saying “You are so impressive,” maybe it is more fitting to respond, “I’m sorry for your dirty mind—or at least your trashy brain.” Considering the sleep habits of others (like my kids on occasion), this research could suggest they have some of the healthiest, cleanest brains on earth—and this is really scary. More could be said, but I am thinking it is time to take a nap and get into a fight with someone else.

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the former lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary and devoted to writing.