[by Tamara Sellman RPSGT CCSH for Advanced Cardiovascular Sleep Disorders Center]
On Tuesday, January 30, 2018 (tomorrow morning), at 3:58am Central Time, Alabamians will be able to witness a spectacular supermoon.
A supermoon occurs when the moon reaches its closest point to the Earth in its current orbit. When it’s this close to the Earth, the moon will appear up to 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than usual.
What’s more, it will be considered a blue moon, as it occurs as a second full moon in the month of January, and get this—the very next night, there will be a total lunar eclipse!
On Wednesday morning, at around 4:51am Central Time, you’ll see the very first of thin shadows touching the moon. The eclipse itself will blot out the moon at around 6:16am local time, when it will turn characteristically orange-red (“blood moon”) as it enters “totality.” Not long after (around 7:03am) the sun rises and the moon sets.
Aside from cutting into our sleep time (because we're getting out of bed to witness these spectacular events), how else might these lunar phenomena impact our sleep this week?
LUNAR EVENTS AND SLEEP DURATION: IS THERE A RELATIONSHIP?
Researchers are still unsure whether there is any relationship between lunar events and sleep quality or quantity. Two recent studies have arrived at different outcomes and both suggest more research is needed.
Still, popular culture tends to believe that supermoons and lunar eclipses can and do affect sleep. Certainly, ultrabright silver moonlight might be blamed by some for insomnia.
Let’s take a look at the science so far.
The first Swiss study
In 2006, researchers published findings exploring the linkage between bright full moons and insomnia in the Journal of Sleep Research.
They studied 31 volunteers in suburban Switzerland over a six-week period which include two full moons, relying on subjective data collected in sleep diaries provided by the volunteers.
Their research showed that the subjects slept, on average, 6 hours and 41 minutes during the full moon, while at the new moon, they average 7 hours of sleep. They also found also evidence of morning fatigue following the full moons.
However, since this study was not designed specifically to measure associations between lunar cycles and sleep duration (the data was gleaned from another study), the scientists recommended that more research needed to take place to confirm these findings.
Still, they didn’t discount the possibility that a full moon might lead to less sleep (about 20 minutes, a change that is gradual across two weeks).
“Prior to the advent of modern lighting the moon was an important source of light, which would have affected sleep directly not only through nocturnal illumination, but also because it allowed social activities outside the house. Such a direct or indirect light effect is still conceivable in the studied suburban region with moderate artificial light sources,” the authors of the study reported.
However, “[s]leep duration is influenced by many factors resulting in large between and within subject variability. This has to be taken into account in the statistical analysis, but few rigorous analyses of the relation between moon cycles and sleep–awake phases in humans have been performed so far.”
The second Swiss study
In August 2013, a second research study on lunar phase and potential impact on sleep, also set in Switzerland, was published in Current Biology.
In “Evidence that the Lunar Cycle Influences Human Sleep,” they found changes in sleep during the full moon by way of more objective data.
Using electroencephalogram (EEG, or brainwave) recordings on its subjects, the researchers measured decreases in delta (deep sleep) activity by as much as 30 percent. The subjects took five minutes longer to fall asleep, and total sleep duration was shown to be reduced by 20 minutes for subjects during a full moon when compared to sleep duration during a new moon.
The researchers determined that these changes in sleep were linked to measurably lower levels of naturally occurring melatonin in the subjects during full moon phasing.
The study authors concluded: “This is the first reliable evidence that a lunar rhythm can modulate sleep structure in humans when measured under the highly controlled conditions of a circadian laboratory study protocol without time cues.”
Together these studies seem to point to a biological change in sleep quantity for human subjects during the extremes of lunar cycles (full moon vs new moon), but as with any clinical research, multiple studies and the ability to replicate these results are the best way to confirm these are scientifically based phenomena.
Still, it’s possible that what we, as human beings, do experience biological shifts in our sleep processes during major changes in the moon, and this seems especially true during special events like supermoons. However, is 20 minutes a truly extraordinary difference? For those who get adequate sleep, probably not. But if you're sleep deprived, that 20 minutes is a loss you might not be able to afford.
If you struggle with getting enough sleep, talk to your primary care physician. There are many reasons that might explain your problems, and most, if not all, are treatable.