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How to get a good night's sleep under Alaska's midnight sun

  • Author: Laurel Andrews
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 30, 2015

Summer in Alaska: a time when doing yard work at midnight is totally normal and fishing until the early hours of the morning seems like common sense. Alaskans cherish the summer days that bring a burst of energy and buzz of activity after dormant winters. But along with the summer sun comes another issue: sleeping troubles.

Whether you're in Barrow, where the sun stays up for more than two months, or in Anchorage, which sees more than 19 hours of sunlight on the summer solstice, extreme shifts of daylight can have profound effects on your sleeping patterns.

For Alaskans and visitors to the Last Frontier who are struggling to sleep -- as well as those who work night shifts -- here are some tips on how to get rest when the sun won't set.

Why am I not tired?

Exposure to light during the late evening messes with your internal clock, aka the circadian rhythm, explained Dr. Graham Glass, a physician at PEAK Neurology & Sleep Medicine in Anchorage.

The circadian rhythm regulates the times during the day that a person feels awake or tired. Light is "far and away" the strongest environmental cue that affects sleep cycles, Glass said.

Production of the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate sleep, increases at night and decreases during the day. But when a person is exposed to sunlight late in the day, that stalls the release of melatonin, Glass said, and people don't feel tired.

Living at high latitudes

People in high latitudes tend to sleep less in the summer -- about 50 minutes less on average, according to a 2015 study.

Glass said that before moving full-time to Alaska, he traveled to the state to see clients. During winter months, people's general state was "wah wah," he said. Then, come summer, there was a "hypomanic" component to people's behavior.

Some research points to potential detrimental effects. A 2009 study found that 82 percent of suicides in Greenland happened during the summer months. Greenland struggles with one of the highest rates of suicide in the world.

"Light is only one of many factors in the complex tragedy of suicide, but this study shows that there is a possible relationship between light and suicide," the study authors wrote.

Alaskans are familiar with seasonal affective disorder, a winter depression caused by seasonal shifts. Recent articles discussing a summer version of SAD have been floating around the Internet, but Glass said he was "skeptical" of such claims and he hadn't heard of a summer SAD.

Sleeping better during the summer

Alaskans' sleeplessness is often behavioral, Glass said. Alaskans are cooped up indoors most of the year, so when summer comes, they want to get outside.

When people are forced into a schedule -- Glass has two young children, and says that they keep the family on a set sleeping pattern -- it's easier to regulate their sleep.

But when someone has no set schedule, they might say, "Oh, I'm going on a bike ride at 1 a.m.," Glass said. "Then it really becomes impactful."

So what can we do? Creating better sleeping habits can help, Glass said.

? Glass recommends waking up at the same time every day. This is much more important than going to bed at the same time, he said, as rising at the same time every morning creates a "sleep debt" that will push a person to go to bed earlier.

? Not surprisingly, avoiding exposure to evening light is by far the most important aspect of sleeping well. Having a scheduled period of darkness before sleep can be helpful, Glass said.

Find or create a space of darkness, whether that means wearing an eye mask or installing blackout curtains. Do-it-yourself blackout curtains can be found with a quick Google search.

? The second most important aspect of sleep regulation is melatonin, according to Glass.

Melatonin is most effective taken two hours before bedtime, contrary to recommendations listed on some bottles, Glass said.

? On the light spectrum, blue light in particular disrupts the circadian rhythm, so wearing sunglasses at night can block out that light.

? Exercise and eating well are less important, but still affect sleep cycles, Glass said. Exercise in the morning, not in the evening, he said.

? In addition, "alcohol is always an issue," Glass said. While it may help someone fall asleep, it can also cause them to wake up during the night.

"So when you're out combat fishing and having too many beers, that can play a role" in sleeplessness, Glass said.

Visiting Alaska?

Alaskans tend to acclimate to the extreme daylight shifts, so visitors and newcomers often struggle more with the endless daylight, Paul Raymond, a physician at the Anchorage Sleep Center said.

Kevin Phillips, a writer for the Alaska Sleep Clinic compiled a list of tips for people traveling to Alaska. For short visits, he recommends keeping one's sleeping and waking cycle as close to the home time zone as possible.

For longer stays, Phillips recommends you "start adjusting your sleep/wake schedule to match that of your destination."

Night shift and North Slope workers

Glass said that the most common sleep disorder he sees is with people who work night shift jobs.

If you work the night shift, take all this advice and flip the hours. Night-shift workers should wear sunglasses on the morning commute home to block out the blue spectrum of light. Take melatonin 2 hours before bed and exercise in the evenings.

For North Slope workers who work 2-weeks-on, 2-weeks-off shifts, acclimating back to a daytime schedule is "really tough," Glass said. As people age, constantly switching schedules also becomes more difficult, he said.

"I'm generally telling (them) to take it easy on themselves when they come back," Glass said.

Have more advice? Leave your sleeping tips in the comments below.

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