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How to Sleep Well in Alaska

Wearing a sleep mask in AlaskaAlaska is known for stunning glaciers, incredible displays of the aurora borealis, and pristine landscapes, yet its beauty and charm can obscure some harsh realities: it’s one of the coldest places in the United States, and its latitude grants it unique daylight and dark patterns.

While native Alaskans and long-time residents have long since learned to sleep in these unusual conditions, visitors and newbies may be in for some sleepless nights. Here’s how people have adapted to sleeping in Alaska.

How Do You Deal with the Midnight Sun?

In the northernmost reaches of Alaska, residents of towns like Nome and Barrow are above the Arctic Circle. That means they experience sunlight 24/7 for up to two months each summer. Even in central and southern Alaska, summertime daylight can last for 18 or more hours a day.

Alaskan view.jpgFor most people, daylight and darkness help govern the body’s circadian rhythm, the internal “clock” that controls, among other things, wakefulness and sleep. In a place like Alaska, the body may need a little help maintaining these rhythms. Many residents take advantage of the extra-long days of summer by spending time outside well after everyone in the Lower 48 has turned in for the night. This extra exercise and activity often helps people sleep better. Blackout curtains, which block out all light, allow Alaskans to create dark sleep environments, and some people use melatonin supplements to aid their bodies’ adjustment. If you’re just visiting for a short time, sticking to your normal sleep routine and try using a sleep mask to create darkness.

What About Polar Night?

The polar night is essentially the opposite of midnight sun: it’s the period in winter when the northernmost latitudes experience little to no daylight because the sun stays below the horizon. Many Alaskans find this time more difficult to adjust to than midnight sun, and it’s often described as “depressing.” Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is more likely to affect transplants than those born and raised in Alaska.

Full-spectrum light bulbs or SAD light boxes are one of the most common ways to combat the persistent gloom of polar winter. Using artificial light to mimic “normal” light patterns can sometimes trick the body into following a typical circadian rhythm. For example, people can expose themselves to bright lights during the day and evening, then dim the lights in the hour approaching bedtime.

Are There Benefits to Sleeping in Cool Temperatures?

skiing in Alaska.jpgWhile Alaskans certainly have more than their fair share of weird light/dark patterns, they may have a leg up on the rest of us when it comes to sleep. Sleeping in a cool room, one that’s between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit, is good for your health. It helps you sleep better by slightly lowering the body’s core temperature, which is a signal to the brain that it’s time to gear down for sleep. Better sleep means better health: it boosts your immune system and can lower the likelihood of heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses. Just don’t overdo the room chilling: temperatures below 54 degrees can disrupt sleep.

Are There Dangers to Sleeping in Extreme Cold?

Intentionally cool room temperatures are one thing, but sleeping in extreme cold is another issue altogether. Whether you’re camping in Alaska, suffering from a power outage, or you just can’t seem to get your room warm enough, here are a few safety tips to keep in mind:

  • Be cautious with heating. Backup heat sources, like an open fire or a kerosene heater, can pose a fire hazard, especially if they’re near bedding or drapery.
  • Hypothermia can set in more quickly than you might expect. Normal body temperature is around 98.6 degrees; hypothermia occurs when that number drops below 95 degrees. Symptoms of hypothermia include violent shivering, a weak pulse, and lethargy.
  • Don’t rely on alcohol to warm up. Drinking only creates the illusion of increased body heat, and in fact, it actually lowers your core temperature.

Have you experienced sleeping in the far north? Share your tips with us in the comments!

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