Many of those living in America will never experience the unique challenges of the long hours of daylight -- or lack of it -- as Alaska residents know all too well. While many in the continental US might experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) due to shortened daylight hours during the winter months, the opposite in its most extreme can present challenges to mental health and wellness for many in Alaska.
Sleep is critical to physical and mental health, as physical and mental health are intrinsically linked. A good night’s rest can replenish chemicals in the brain, which help regulate and stabilize mood. Rest is essential for our physical body to recover following a day of work or other activities that break down our muscles.
When sleep is disrupted, we might feel irritable or on edge. Our tolerance for frustration decreases, meaning that we might be unable to handle even the slightest inconvenience to our daily life. While one or two days of feeling this way might be cured by a long nap or “catching up” on lost sleep later in the week when the environment creates a challenge to our natural sleep patterns over several weeks, how can we cope with these changes?
For some, the extended daylight during the summer might be a time to look on the bright side. This time in the sun might be a blessing compared to the opposite extreme in the winter, where darkness looms for nearly two months. Some residents take advantage of this unique circumstance. Much like those in the lower 48 during summer, many Alaskans become much more active during the long summer days.
However, too much of a good thing can become an issue. While we all might experience sleeplessness at times, the effects can be truly disorienting under the midnight sun. Struggling to sleep while the sun is down and the night shrouds the sky in darkness might be a little easier for us to reconcile. Waking up to find the sun in full brightness at 2 AM can create confusion, as our body might not recognize that it should be sleepy.
The paradox of getting a good night’s sleep in seemingly endless sunshine is not lost on many Alaskan residents. Our sleep patterns, and body’s circadian rhythm, get cues from the environment -- cooler temperatures and darkness help our body set an internal clock regulating our energy levels from active during the day and restful at night. When our environment disrupts our body’s natural cues, we need to make our own schedule.
While we might be tempted to stay out late at night, taking advantage of the time outdoors to work or enjoy recreational activities, we might set ourselves up for failure by throwing our bodies off schedule. Once the summer sun wanes, we might continue to struggle as the days get shorter during the fall and winter months.
Extremes of extended winters and summers mean that remaining on a schedule can be vital for our mental and physical health, regardless of the presence or absence of the sun. When our body cannot regulate itself, we need to override and remain disciplined to neither sleep too much or too little. During the long summer, we can do the following to maintain a healthy sleep cycle:
Go to bed and wake up around the same times each day
Setting a routine is crucial! Our body can become disoriented easily, even after only a few days of staying up late to bask in the midnight sun.
Set a sleep time to follow each night and wake up around the same times each morning.
Even if we feel energized during this time, we might need to stick to the routine for a few days until we associate sleep time with rest and inactivity.
Create a nighttime routine to relax
Relaxing while our body believes we should be active can be challenging.
Winding down with a relaxing activity can help us cue our bodies to prepare for sleep.
Try some of the following: Relax with a book, take a cold shower, turn off cell phones and other devices, wear sunglasses indoors when winding down to block sunlight leaking in
Making an artificial night
Our body will only fight us more if environmental cues are present.
Invest in blackout currents for bedrooms and maybe even the rest of the home if you need to get up for the bathroom or a late-night snack.
Block out additional sunlight from reaching your eyes by wearing nightshades.
Use door draft blockers, towels, or blankets to block sunlight from coming through doorways.
Sleeping under the midnight sun for Alaska residents and other places near the Arctic Circle can be challenging. The impact on our mental and physical health can be significant, leading to depression, anxiety, irritability, restlessness, and other issues. However, by taking preventative measures, we can get through the extended summer days and continue in good health throughout the year. Due to our body’s reliance on environmental cues, like sunlight, to regulate sleep cycles, Alaska residents must be mindful of setting sleep routines and schedules throughout the year. By maintaining a routine, we can get through the long dark winters and the disorienting midnight sun. Mental health issues related to disrupted sleep cycles can be common in the Great North. For those struggling with mental health challenges, SokyaHealth is here to help you. We have locations in Anchorage, Wasilla, and Fairbanks for you or a loved one to cope with mental health issues. Call us today at 866-932-1767.