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Getting Enough Sleep in the Land of the Midnight Sun

Not enough sun or too much sun, sleeping in Alaska can be troublesome


An Alaska Sleep Clinic technician conducts a sleep study.

Photo courtesy of the Alaska Sleep Clinic

The image of the bleary-eyed individual with a cup of coffee in hand has become normal in today’s world where sleep is seen as a luxury instead of a necessity. 
Getting by with just a few hours of sleep so “more” can be accomplished—more work, more meetings, more activities, more household chores, more social obligations—has become a badge of honor. Yet the health effects of not getting enough sleep are taking a toll on millions of people each year.
In fact, a survey conducted by the National Sleep foundation reveals that at least 40 million Americans suffer from more than 70 different sleep disorders and 60 percent of adults report experiencing sleep problems a few nights a week. More than 40 percent of adults experience daytime sleepiness severe enough to interfere with their daily activities at least a few days each month.

The Alaskan Sleep Cycle

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). 
Alaskans are no strangers to the sleep troubles that come along with sixteen-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 doesn’t set, sleep signals become scrambled making deep rest a challenge. 
Sleep is more important to mental and physical health than most people realize. It helps the brain to work properly. If the brain is working properly so is the body. 
Having trouble remembering to finish tasks? Can’t remember directions given at work? Sleep deprivation may be at play. 
While sleeping, the brain forms new pathways for learning and remembering information. Studies show that a good night’s sleep improves one’s ability to learn. The right amount of sleep can help with learning a new skill and with problem-solving. Trying to learn math or solve a problem at work? Get a good night’s sleep first. 

The Danger of Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation is linked to better decision-making and problem solving skills, controlling emotions and behavior, and even improved coping skills. Not getting enough sleep can even lead to feelings of anger and loss of impulse control. 
Sleep also plays a paramount role in physical health. A good night’s sleep will help heal and repair the heart and blood vessels, and help the body recover from injury and illness. For children and teens, sleep leads to healthy growth and development. 
The damage from sleep deprivation can occur in an instant—think car crash from falling asleep at the wheel. Missed sleep leads to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke.
Most people think they can get by on little sleep. Maybe they’ve been doing it for years without seeing any major consequences. Or perhaps they rely on caffeine to give them an extra boost of energy to get through the day. 
Little do most people realize that sleep deprivation has created a ticking time bomb that could go off at any moment. Take drowsy driving for an example. Most drowsy drivers think they are capable to drive without falling asleep. Yet, countless studies show that driving drowsy affects reaction time as much as or more than driving drunk. 
The same decrease in the ability to function applies to more than just driving. Healthcare workers, teachers, pilots, students, lawyers, assembly line workers, mechanics, and parents can all make serious and even fatal mistakes because they are too tired to think clearly or act quickly.
The reality is that sleep deprivation is dangerous; it’s not something that you can choose to do without. But how much sleep is enough to stave of the ill effects of not sleeping?
Everyone’s sleep needs vary based on age, health, and occupation. Generally speaking, most healthy adults need at least eight hours of quality sleep a night. Even just a loss of one to two hours for several nights causes the sufferer to function the same as if they hadn’t slept at all for a day or two. 

The National Sleep Foundation 2015 Age Group Sleep Needs

Age Hours of Sleep needed
Newborns (0-3 months) 14-17 hours each day
Infants (4-11 months) 12-15 hours
Toddlers (1-2 years) 11-14 hours
School-aged children (6-13 years) 9-11 hours
Teenagers (14-17)  8-10 hours
Adults (18-64) 7-9 hours
Older adults (65+) 7-8 hours


Look at it this way: if one needs eight hours of sleep and only five hours are reached, the sleep debt totals two hours. If this pattern is followed for five nights, the sleep debt is 10 hours. 
The body is constantly giving out signals when sleep debt is too great. Ever zone out during a conversation and can’t remember what was said? When the body is exhausted, it turns to microsleep. 
Microsleep, more commonly known as zoning out, is a temporary episode of sleep that can last any from a fraction of a second up to thirty seconds. These episodes are involuntary and can lead to catastrophic events since it is extremely difficult for an individual to resist the body’s inbuilt desire to sleep.  
Other symptoms of sleep deprivation include: excessive daytime sleepiness; yawning; moodiness; fatigue; irritability; depressed mood; difficulty learning new concepts; forgetfulness; inability to concentrate; lack of motivation; clumsiness; increased appetite; and, diminished sex drive. 

Forming Healthy Sleep Habits

The good news for Alaskans is that many of the negative effects of sleep deprivation can be reversed when the right amount of quality sleep is obtained. The best way to get out of sleep debt is to get more sleep with the practice of good sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene refers to the habits that are necessary for quality sleep. Tips for good sleep hygiene include:
  • Go to bed when tired.
  • Follow a routine for sleep and wake-up times; keep them consistent every day of the week.
  • Avoid eating two to three hours before bedtime.
  • If unable to fall asleep after twenty minutes of trying, go to another room and try to read until sleepiness is felt, return to bed.
  • Engage in regular exercise during the day.
  • Keep the bedroom quiet, dark, and at a cool, comfortable temperature.
  • Turn off electronic devices. 
  • Use darkening curtains during summer when the sun stays up.
It is possible to get oneself out of sleep debt and back to living a full and successful life through the power of restorative sleep. 
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