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When Darkness Makes It Hard to Sleep

This might make you feel a little better if you’ve been complaining about it getting dark earlier, especially since Daylight Saving Time ended earlier this month.

Barrow, Alaska has recently entered its 7- to 10-week period of no sun. That’s right, no sun for 51-67 days starting around November 18 and lasting until about January 23. This is the winter gift for being on the most northern tip of the west coast of Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle.

If anyone has legitimate reasons to complain about the shorter days and lack of sunlight, it would be the roughly 4,200 people who live in Barrow. Many will experience a range of physiological responses to the seemingly endless night, such as insatiable cravings for carbohydrates, natural light and sleep.

As odd as it sounds, in this case it is possible for darkness to mess with your sleep. The long period of darkness is hard on the body because humans are diurnal creatures, meaning we are naturally active during the daytime.

Our circadian rhythms reflect that with the core body temperature reaching its lowest and the concentration of melatonin at its highest toward the end of the sleep period usually between 4:00-5:00 in the morning in most adults. Melatonin is normally absent during daylight hours and begins to be produced by the body again around 8:00-9:00 at night.

While the body’s clock doesn’t need light to function and the circadian cycle still works when an individual is totally cut off from daylight, the circadian clock does use the light-dark cycle to check its accuracy and resynchronize. If it doesn’t have that ability to check, over time it can become unbalanced and throw off the timing of the various cues and triggers for hormone production, which has a domino effect on all other systems in the body.

The problems go beyond physiology. It is estimated that 10% of Alaskans suffer from some degree of Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression caused by decreased daylight, according to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. Some of the symptoms are lethargy, increased desire for sleep, cravings for carbohydrates, loss of libido or sociability, even fuzzy thinking.

Some long-time residents of Barrow have even said that at some point during the long darkness, they get confused if it’s morning or night.

Barrow native Papuk Glenn said planning activities around a cultural calendar that is based on the months of dark and light helps maintain a sense of time passing, and added, “We have grown up with the months of dark and light, and what is normal for you would be abnormal for us.”