Sleep in Alaska: How Sleep Changes During a Solstice
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Depending on where you are in Alaska, summer daylight can burn anywhere from 18 hours to a full 24. Similarly, darkness can surround you anywhere from 20 to 24 hours during winter. Understandably, the celestial events in the Last Frontier can prove to be a bit problematic when it comes to sleep. More specifically, the extremes of light and darkness can undoubtedly interfere with the regulation of one’s circadian rhythm — which is dependent on light, darkness, and consistent exposure to both.
Curious about what it’s like to sleep in the land of the midnight sun? So were we. So much so, Sleepopolis recently conducted its 2023 Alaskan Sleep Survey. Overall we had 201 respondents. The majority of respondents ranged in age from 30 to 60 years old, and just over 70% lived in Alaska for their whole life, or most of it.
- 46.27% of Alaskans use blackout curtains, and 25.87% use sleep aids to help them sleep in the land of the midnight sun.
- Almost half of the respondents (49.2%) said they sleep more during the winter.
- 44.8% said the extreme sunlight in the summer does not affect their sleep quality and schedule at all.
Overall, we learned that the extremes of light and dark effects some more than others; Alaskans seem to take it in stride, and they employ any necessary interventions as needed.
Melatonin and The Circadian Rhythm
Darkness and light exposure play a crucial role in melatonin production, the hormone that regulates your sleep cycle.
Melatonin is known for the following:
- Our brain begins to produce it in response to decreased light exposure at night
- Melatonin helps us fall asleep and stay asleep
- Its production throttles back in response to sunlight, which promotes wakefulness in the morning
Ultimately, the absence of this daily ebb and flow of light (similar to what we see in Alaska) can interfere with melatonin production and, in turn, your circadian rhythm. Keep in mind, too, that circadian rhythms are also regulated by environmental cues (exercise, being outdoors, bedtime routines), and when anyone is subjected to extended periods of darkness, that can also play a role in disrupting sleep schedules. On the other hand, longer stretches of daylight can hinder your melatonin production, leading to a disastrous domino effect of stalling your sleep and throwing your circadian rhythm out of whack.
Sleep Quality in Alaska
In terms of overall sleep health, most Alaskans indicated it was somewhere in the middle, on a scale from 1 to 5 (5 being the best), 40.3% rated their year-round sleep quality at a 3, with the majority of Alaskans sleeping more in the winter.
Sunlight Exposure and Its Impact on Sleep in Alaska
As we mentioned, the majority of Alaskans indicated that they sleep more during the winter — 49.25%, to be exact. Pulling back the covers a bit, we found that 40% of our respondents said that the extreme darkness of winter doesn’t typically affect their sleep schedule or quality, and less than 7% said they find it harder to fall asleep during the winter.
How Does Extreme Darkness Affect Sleep Quality and Circadian Rhythms?
“Alaska winters can have a significant impact on sleep quality,” Isabella Gordon, Sleep Science Coach and Co-Founder of Sleep Society, tells Sleepopolis. “The long hours of darkness, cold temperatures, and snow can all interfere with the body’s natural circadian rhythms and make it difficult to sleep well.”
Gordon adds, “Winter conditions in Alaska may also exacerbate certain sleep disorders. People with insomnia, sleep apnea, or restless leg syndrome might find their symptoms worsen during the winter months due to decreased exposure to sunlight and increased stress levels associated with weather changes.” And if that doesn’t sound like enough, she further notes that “the lack of daylight exposure can lead to Vitamin D deficiencies, which can cause fatigue and make it even more difficult to maintain healthy sleep habits.”
While less than 10% indicated their sleep quality is worse in the summer, 30.4% of participants said the extreme daylight in the summer makes it harder to fall asleep, and interestingly, 44.8% said the extreme sunlight in the summer does not affect their sleep quality and schedule at all.
A part of this is likely due to Alaskans knowing exactly how to deal with the incredible amounts of daylight—you wouldn’t live in a rainy climate without a raincoat or umbrella, after all! Many Alaskans lean on sleep tools such as eye masks, blackout curtains and sleep supplements to stave off the sunlight come bedtime.
How Does Extreme Darkness Affect Sleep Quality and Circadian Rhythms?
Much like the winter season, Alaska summers can give its people as much as 20 hours of daylight each day, and while it can be great for your social life and getting things done around the house, it can wreak a little havoc with sleep quality. “The long days may cause people to stay up too late and wake up earlier than usual, leading to less restorative sleep,” says Gordon.
“During the summer months in Alaska, a person’s biological clock is exposed to more light than usual during the day and less darkness at night,” she adds. “This amount of light present can cause disruptions to the timing and quality of sleep cycles, making it difficult for people to fall asleep at night or get enough restful sleep. Additionally, sunlight exposure during extended daylight hours impacts hormone production levels like melatonin, which can further disrupt circadian rhythms.”
Methods for Improving Sleep During the Summer Solstice
When the sun doesn’t do its part to assist with sleep during the summer, Alaskans often find that they have to take matters into their own hands to get some shut-eye. Sleepopolis’ Alaskan Sleep Survey reveals that the overwhelming majority use a really simple approach — blackout curtains.
These types of curtains are heavy and opaque enough to artificially darken their sleeping environments and maybe give their circadian rhythm a fighting chance.
Methods for Improving Sleep During the Winter Solstice
To improve sleep quality during the winter, 28.4% of respondents said they simply do nothing. Those who choose a more proactive approach to protect their sleep do so with interventions like sleep medications or supplements. And while you might think sub-zero winter temperatures would likely cause a run on electric blankets come November, that doesn’t seem to be the case — only 12.9% of Alaskans said they use a heated blanket.
And while light therapy for the treatment of sleep disorders and circadian rhythm disruptions has been shown to improve sleep outcomes, our survey shows that only about 9.45% of respondents used a light therapy box to improve their sleep quality. Light therapy typically involves turning on a bright light — usually a light therapy lamp — in the morning and turning it off in the evening, about 12 hours later.
Beyond light boxes and light therapy, Tom Greenspan, Sleep Science Coach and CEO of VS Mattress suggests:
- Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day can help keep your body’s natural rhythms in sync.
- Making sure your bedroom environment is comfortable, cool, dark, and quiet — all of which are critical elements for a restful night’s sleep.
- Identifying sources of stress in your life and addressing them. Stress can greatly affect how well you sleep.
How does melatonin affect the circadian rhythm?
Melatonin is a hormone (produced in the brain’s pineal gland) that helps regulate our sleep-wake cycle, also known as our circadian rhythm. As evening approaches and our exposure to light decreases, our melatonin production kicks on to promote sleep. It helps us fall asleep and stay asleep. As our exposure to sunlight increases each morning with sunrise, melatonin production tapers off to promote wakefulness.
How does the sun affect sleep?
“The sun can have a significant impact on your sleep patterns,” says Gordon. “The amount of light exposure [we get] during the day has been shown to influence certain hormones in the body, such as melatonin, which helps regulate our natural sleep-wake cycle. When we are exposed to more sunlight during the day, it suppresses melatonin production and promotes wakefulness and daytime alertness. On the other hand, in places like Alaska, where daylight hours are shorter during certain times of the year, too little sunlight can lead to increased melatonin production at inappropriate times, as well as interrupted sleep cycles.”
The Last Word From Sleepopolis
With 18+ hours of daylight in the summer and 20+ hours of darkness during the winter, Alaskans certainly have a unique set of circumstances when it comes to their sleep. The extremes of light and darkness can interfere with melatonin production, sleep, and circadian rhythms. Sleepopolis’ 2023 Alaskan Sleep Survey revealed that, for the most part, Alaskans don’t lose a lot of sleep over these extremes.