Updated: June 25, 2020
When you lie down, you will not be afraid. When you rest, your sleep will be peaceful.
The Impact of Prayer on Sleep
There is a growing body of research that supports the claim that prayer has a positive impact on sleep. The focus is on how it affects the brain, which is still largely a mystery to science. Neuroplasticity is the study of the brain's ability to create new neuropathways through thought, emotion, and environmental stimuli. Neurotheology, which is an even more recent area of brain research, is the study of the brain and religion.
Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of research at Thomas Jefferson Hospital and Medical College in Pennsylvania and author of How God Changes Your Brain explains, "The more you focus on something — whether that’s math or auto racing or football or God — the more that becomes your reality, the more it becomes written into the neural connections of your brain."
Dr. Christopher Ellison, a researcher at the University of Texas at San Antonio, reviewed several large studies of religious involvement (which included frequency of prayer, religious attendance, and religious importance) and their impact on sleep health (which included overall sleep quality, restless sleep, use of sleep medications). Their findings were published in Sleep Health: Journal of the National Sleep Foundation concluded that people who have higher levels of religious involvement tend to have healthier sleep outcomes than their less religious counterparts. Ellison believes this occurs because of reduced stress, higher social engagement with other members of the church, and lower levels of drug abuse.
The Fight or Flight Response
Harvard physiologist Walter B. Cannon first coined the term "fight or flight" in the 1920s. This mechanism is an instinctual physiological response to a physically or mentally threatening situation. According to Harvard Health Publishing, the fight or flight response starts with the amygdala, the part of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus communicates with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has increased energy to run or fight, or to freeze (which is thought to be an evolutionary response to prevent an attacker from finding them). The heart rate increases, sending blood to the muscles and vital organs. The breathing rate increases as small airways in the lungs open up, allowing the lungs to take in more oxygen. This oxygen is sent to the muscles as well as the brain, which increases alertness, sight, and hearing. Epinephrine triggers the release of glucose (blood sugar) and fats to supply the energy need to deal with the threat.
After the initial dump of epinephrine, the hypothalamus activates the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands. This second phase is called the HPA axis. If the brain continues to receive a danger signal, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which travels to the pituitary gland, triggering the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This hormone travels to the adrenal glands, prompting them to release cortisol. If the threat is no longer there, cortisol levels drop, and the body will return to a normal state.
The problem that many people are dealing with is chronic low-level stress, which to a small degree keeps the body in the fight or flight state. There are many negative health consequences to this state: damaged arteries and blood vessels, higher risk of heart attacks and strokes, the build-up of fat tissues, and lower sleep quality. And lower sleep quality can lead to a number of negative impacts, including obesity, heart disease, lower lifespan, diabetes, higher rates of Alzheimer's disease, increased mortality, and increased inflammation. Lack of restful sleep has also been shown to negatively affect focus, memory, self-control, immune function, sex drive, and hormone balance.
Prayer and the Brain
Dr. Herbert Benson, the author of The Relaxation Response and founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine and Massachusetts General Hospital, has devoted his career to combating this chronic state of low-level stress with what he calls the relaxation response. The relaxation response includes deep abdominal breathing, prayer, visualization of tranquil scenes, repeating a soothing word, and meditation.
Dr. David Spiegel, associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, explains "Praying involves the deeper parts of the brain: the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex — the mid-front and back portions." Researchers can see this through magnetic image resonance (MRI), which show the parts of the brain that are used and not used while a person is praying. Dr. Spiegel clarifies, "These parts of the brain are involved in self-reflection and self-soothing."
A study from the National Institutes of Health found that the relaxation response causes genetic changes. The study involved 26 adults with no experience in any kind of relaxation response practice who were given 8 weeks of relaxation response training. For comparison, a group of 25 people with 4 to 25 years of relaxation response training were included. Blood samples were analyzed to determine the gene expression of more than 22,000 genes. The result was that relaxation response techniques were found to positively influence inflammation, circadian rhythms, and energy metabolism.
Dr. Matthew Walker is the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California and is one of the foremost experts on sleep. He says, "The silent sleep loss epidemic is one of the greatest public health challenges we face in the 21st century."
Many people are chronically under-rested, and one of the contributing factors is stress. And for many people, not sleeping well can create more stress, which creates a cycle that can be difficult to break. One of the core pillars of good sleep hygiene is reducing stress levels, and modern brain research supports the use of the practice of prayer.