Sleep is more important to mental and physical health than most people realize. Sleep helps the brain to work properly. If the brain is working properly so is the body.
With summer fast approaching, Alaskans will be faced with prolonged hours of daylight. Alaskans are no stranger to the sleep troubles that come along with 16 plus hours of daylight during the summer months.
When the sun goes down, melatonin is released in the bodies as a signal that it is time to head to bed. But when the sun won’t set, the signals for sleep become scrambled making sleep a challenge.
Losing sleep can be detrimental to your health. The rate of sleep problems is higher among residents of Alaska because of the state’s irregular daylight exposure. Sunlight and the setting sun play a paramount role in regulating circadian rhythms (the body’s 24-hour sleep wake cycle).
The Midnight Sun
For Alaskans, the long hours of daylight — or the midnight sun as locals call it – presents a unique challenge to getting enough sleep.
Residents of Anchorage are used to more than 19 hours of sunlight during the summer. Go further up to Barrow to where the sun doesn’t set for more than two months and you start to see why its hard to fall asleep during the summer.
The midnight sun comes after the polar night, which is where many parts of Alaska have little to no daylight during the long winter months. In Alaska’s extreme north, the sun doesn’t even rise during November to January.
Our bodies need both light and dark to help regulate our circadian rhythms, or rather are sleeping patterns. The setting of the sun and the eventual darkness of the night is what signals the release of the hormone melatonin in our bodies.
Melatonin is not only lets our body know it’s time to sleep but it also regulates during sleep. The hormone naturally increases as night falls and decreases during the day when the sun is out.
Daylight and nighttime darkness are the strongest environmental factors that influence our sleep patterns.
Sleep can follow a pretty predictable pattern unless outside factors like irregular daylight hours come into play. When you are exposed to sunlight late in the evening, the release of melatonin is stalled and you end up not feeling tired.
Side effects of the midnight sun
The prolonged daylight hours of the summer are often welcomed after a dark and cold winter. Many Alaskans enjoy the extra daylight hours after being cooped up all winter.
The summer can be a time of extra activity before having to turn back to staying inside during the winter. Hiking at 1 am or mowing the lawn at 11 pm is not unusual to the Alaskan who is used to the midnight sun.
The midnight sun brings barriers to your sense of time and normal sleep cycles despite the fun and excitement that comes with the extra daylight. The science behind how light and dark affects your brain can help you understand why sleeping under the midnight sun is so difficult.
Your brain has a structure, called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (or SCN). The SCN is the part of the brain the regulates and controls all of the circadian rhythms in the body.The SCN is located at the intersection of your optic nerves.
When light hits your eyes and optic nerves, a signal is sent out that it is time to wake up. When our eyes detect the sun going down, your suprachiasmatic nucleus sends out a signal to produce melatonin so the body can get ready to sleep.
The midnight sun messes with the signal to produce melatonin. Usually, your levels of melatonin start to rise one to two hours before you go to sleep. When you are exposed to daylight when it should be dark, your body gets confused about when you should be awake and when you should be asleep.
There are many risks that accompany not getting the right amount of sleep. Symptoms of sleep deprivation include:
- Breathing pauses during sleep
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Difficulty staying asleep
- Restless sleep
- Mouth breathing
- Daytime sleepiness
- Slips in work performance
- Unusual events during sleep (sleep waking, nightmares, night terrors)
There are several steps that you can take if you are struggling to sleep in Alaska.
The first step is to block out the light coming into your bedroom. Covering your window with blackout shades or curtains can help to effectively make your room seem like its nighttime.
Do not despair if the idea of dark drapes clashes with your style. Blackout curtains don’t have to be black or even curtains.
Pull down blackout shades will keep the sunlight down if you fit them to cover the whole window. You can also use blackout liners to put behind your existing window treatments. All you have to do is have the liner cut to your window size and then stick the liner on.
Blackout curtains come in a variety of lengths, colors, and styles to suit your needs to clock out the midnight sun. A quick search on the Internet will lead you to find the blackout curtains that will work best for you.
If you are the DIY type, you can sew your own curtains with blackout fabric. A dark sheet, piece of fabric, or blanket can also do the trick if you don’t have blackout curtains or you can’t craft. The main thing to consider is if the fabric is dark enough to block the light. Tapping a thick layer of tinfoil or a piece of cardboard on your window can also help block the daylight from your window.
You just need to create a situation where you can block the light from coming into your bedroom. The dark room should be enough to signal the release of melatonin so that you can fall asleep. Ideally, you should be in your darkened environment at least 90 minutes before you would like to fall asleep.
Having time in your darkened area while you relax can help trick your body into thinking the sun has set and that it is time to sleep. Make sure you avoid the blue light of electronics as that can also inhibit your body’s attempt to release melatonin.
Wearing sunglasses while you are out during the evening can also help block out the harsh daylight, which helps your body release the melatonin it needs for sleep.
Sleep masks can also be a way to help block the daylight out without having to out up window coverings. Sleep masks can range from thin to thick. Try to find a sleep mask that is comfortable enough for you to wear while sleeping.
Another tip for sleeping under the Alaskan midnight sun is to keep a consistent schedule. The temptation with the extra daylight hours is to cram in as many activities as you can before the dark of winter sets in. Your body will have an easier time releasing melatonin if you have a regular sleep pattern.
Try waking up at the same time every day and make sure you are going to bed at the same time every night.
Exercise and eating also affect the sleep cycle. Make sure you are eating healthy and that you are exercising in the morning and not in the evening. Too much activity right before bed can prevent you from getting to sleep when you want to.
Summer in Alaska is amazing, but can also wreak havoc on your sleep cycle. These tips and tricks can go a long way in helping you sleep under the midnight sun. If you are worried about the sleep you are getting, give us a call at the Alaska Sleep Clinic so we can help you have a restful summer.