Study Finds Religious Faith is the Surprising Key to Sleeping Well

The faithful generally get better slumber, according to a new peer-reviewed research study coauthored by religion and health expert Dr. Chris Ellison.

By Josh Shepherd Published on June 28, 2018

Rather than counting sheep, perhaps those seeking better sleep should pray. That may be one implication of a new study on religion and sleep recently published in Sleep Health.

It finds people with higher religious involvement get better sleep than their less religious counterparts. The findings are based on data from seven large studies, says co-author Chris Ellison. Ellison teaches sociology at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Uncharted Territory

“These [seven] studies included indicators of ‘how religious’ someone is and some measure of sleep quality — or lack thereof,” he says. “Aspects of religiosity, such as frequency of prayer or church attendance, are associated with enhanced sleep quality.”

For over 30 years, Ellison has been researching links between health and religion. He collaborated with experts at University of Arizona and University of North Carolina on this new study.

“This research is unchartered territory,” he added. “It allows us to better understand ways in which religion and spirituality affect a person’s health.”

He emphasized the limits of the research. “We’re social scientists, not M.D.s,” he says. He wants “scholars in diverse fields to look at this neglected topic. We need to examine the complex ways in which religiosity may be conducive to better health.”

Better Sleep — A Dream Come True

Over decades, studies have shown religious involvement is linked to better health and longer life expectancies. The Handbook of Religion and Health has long compiled these findings. At 1,100+ pages, the massive tome is in its 2nd edition. In summary, studies show religious participants have reduced stress, less depression and better health outcomes.

Yet links between religious participation and sleep have barely been explored. This new peer-reviewed research examines the correlation.

“Sleep is important in terms of […] quality of life,” says Ellison. “Poor sleep quality is linked to cardiovascular and other health problems, mental health issues, impaired relationships and more.” It can also lower productivity at work and raise risk of accidents.

Research on sleep and spirituality has been sparse, confirms The Handbook of Religion and Health. As to which religious group may help members sleep, Ellison notes they don’t study such questions.

“Most religion and health studies focus on what people are doing and believing, rather than on religious identity,” he says. “These studies include all major religions in the U.S. We do not see any evidence of group differences — such as Protestant versus Catholic — in sleep outcomes.”

Before Simplifying Findings, Sleep On It

However, Ellison explains, “For some persons, religion may be a double-edged sword.” The study identified people who experience spiritual struggles, grappling with chronic doubt.

“Their negative encounters with spirituality may constitute added stressors in their lives,” he says. “This may actually degrade sleep quality. Fortunately, it appears most individuals engage religious faith and practice in more positive ways.”

The paper itself raises other possible explanations. Religious people smoke less and consume less alcohol. They also generally enjoy stronger social bonds and greater resilience in stress. Might such strengths explain why they catch more z’s?

“These factors may help to account for better sleep health experienced by many,” says Ellison. “However, these hypotheses remain speculative.” He says further studies are needed to confirm the insights.

“What we do know today is that rather robust connections exist between religion and sleep.” We don’t know for sure why religion helps people sleep. But it does. Can’t sleep? Don’t count sheep. Pray.

Watch the video below to learn about the science of sleep. Explore our full coverage of Healthy Living tips and trends. To never miss a story, sign up for The Stream weekly e-mail.


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