This time last year I was on the Aland archipelago, a group of over 6700 islands off the West coast of Finland.
My great-grandfather was born in Aland and I was the first family member to set foot there since he left to join the navy in 1881. He never returned home; instead he married my great grandmother and got a job in a London lead works. We stayed in a traditional wooden house, complete with sauna, and often cooked-in (food on the islands is eye-wateringly expensive).
Four days into our stay, I noticed that instead of having dinner at our normal time of around 7.30 pm, we were now eating at 11 pm. This had happened without us even noticing. Sure we were on holiday, but this never happens when we go to our usual holiday places!
June days in the Aland islands are long, very long. Although the sun sets at about 11 pm, it doesn’t really go dark. Instead you have nights of gentle twilight. It’s lovely. However, my body had sensed the dramatic change in light and shifted my body clock accordingly.
It’s amazing to think that it’s aeons since mankind lived outdoors under big skies and yet the body’s sensitivity to natural light remains acute. My late night dinners reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a climbing instructor in Iceland, a land of similar extremes in summer and winter day-length. He said that in summer he has to remind his climbing clients to go back to their rooms and sleep. Otherwise, they just keep on climbing! The cycle of being awake during the day and sleeping at night is regulated by daylight. Specially adapted cells in the retina of the eye detect light and send signals via the brain to control hormones, body temperature and other functions that make us feel either sleepy or awake.
This cycle is often called the Circadian rhythm. You don’t have to travel to Finland to experience a shift in your own Circadian rhythm. The current UK heatwave is bringing intense light levels and high night-time temperatures. Your body is bound to notice! While it’s natural during high summer to need less sleep and feel more energised, don’t overdo it. If you cram ever more into your already busy schedule and then find it hard to sleep at night, you could become sleep deprived.
If this happens, some small changes to your routine will help.
Spend the hour before bed relaxing in a cool room with the blinds half-drawn. A bedroom that is too warm will hinder restful sleep so consider a fan. Some people even put ice packs in front of the fan to send a cooling breeze. You could also try blackout curtains, or an eye mask. No blackout curtains to hand? Take a tip from the GB Cycling team who tape plastic bin bags to the windows when on tour. Not pretty but effective! Another option is to take a nap during the day. Daytime naps need to be carefully managed to avoid that sluggish feeling when you wake up. I’ll be talking about the do’s and don’t of daytime napping in an upcoming blog. Until then sleep well, live well
I was lucky enough to find the house where my great grandfather lived, preserved in an open air museum.