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The Lunar Effect — How the Moon Affects Our Sleep

Does a full moon lead to more restless nights? What science has to say about lunar cycles and sleep.
By Shelly Ibach, CEO, Sleep Number; Sleep Editor-at-Large, Thrive Global

I have always found the moon mysterious, even mystical, with an inexorable draw.

It’s intriguing to think about the correlations between the moon and our own world. As a nature lover, I think it’s fascinating that forest animals are far more active on full moon nights. I have a deep curiosity about the moon’s phases — the role they play in our lives that we don’t yet fully understand.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing this month, I’ve been reflecting on that historic image of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting the American flag on the lunar surface. It’s as compelling now as it was then. Since that “one small step” on July 20th 1969, reaching the moon is no longer the distant dream it was for our ancestors — now we’re heading to Mars!

And for me, the moon has a personal resonance. My late husband, George, and I would dance in the moonlight out on the patio at our farm to Neil Young’s song, “Harvest Moon.” I lost George in October 2017, after an 18-month battle with leukemia, and I played “our song” at his funeral. It was our last dance.

I was musing on all this when I was on vacation in Hawaii recently. The place where I stay on Oahu is right on the ocean, and one night I woke up at about 2 a.m. There was a full moon, which lit a glistening path all the way across the ocean, right to my open patio door. I felt the moon had woken me up and grabbed me; I was sure it was beckoning me awake that night. I felt a deep spiritual connection, as though the moon was leading me somewhere. I felt a sense of hope and trust in my path forward.

 

The moon outside my window in Oahu

In fact, there is substance to my magical Hawaiian experience. Scientists have reported that the moon plays a significant role in human sleep, that we’re naturally attuned to lunar cycles. A 2013 study conducted by scientists at Switzerland’s University of Basel found that when there’s a full moon, it takes us longer to drift off and the quality of our rest is affected — the study’s volunteer subjects spent 30 percent less time in deep sleep than during the rest of the month.

To find out more, I spoke to Nathaniel Watson, M.D., a professor of neurology and Co-Director of the University of Washington’s Sleep Medicine Center, who is familiar with the Swiss study, which measured sleep objectively in a highly controlled laboratory environment. The researchers found that during a full moon, it takes five minutes longer to fall asleep and people sleep about 20 minutes less than they normally do. Also, the time spent in REM sleep and slow wave sleep was reduced.

Watson finds the results fascinating and so do I. “This is another example of how the natural world impacts our health and well-being, even though we don’t fully understand it. We are mammals living on this planet where we’ve evolved, and so these natural phenomena having an impact on our physiology shouldn’t come as a surprise,” Dr. Watson says. “This suggests that there is a lunar rhythm, in addition to a circadian rhythm, in our bodies, and that human beings may be responsive to lunar cycles in ways that are not related to gravitational forces from the moon.”

What I also find interesting is that while it may feel like we’re wide awake during the full moon because of the increased light levels (as I did in Hawaii), that’s not necessarily the case. “In general, there’s lots of evidence to show that exposing yourself to light at night is not good for your health or your sleep. But actually, the subjects in the study were monitored for three and a half days in bedrooms that had no exposure to lunar light,” Dr. Watson clarified. “That’s why the lunar effect still remains a mystery.”

So, should we be making adjustments to our nighttime routine when there’s a full moon? Well, we can certainly control the things that are “controllable,” like going to bed earlier or waking up later. The important thing is to have deep restorative sleep every night. That means a good bedtime routine — prepare for bed as a transition from your busy day. Keep your technology off in the bedroom and ensure that you have the right bed and pillow to give you the comfort and support your body needs. Align the variables that will result in a good night’s sleep. And then surrender to the role nature plays in our life.

As Dr. Watson says, don’t stress about the moon. “Full moons are going to come and go every 29.5 days. If light was the issue, then having blackout shades in your bedroom would work, but that’s not the case.” To his point, other studies have shown no connection between the moon’s cycles and our sleep; or that women (but not men) spend less time in REM sleep when there’s a full moon.

Looking at Sleep Number’s Sleep IQ data, we’ve found no evidence that during a full moon night our smart bed sleepers took more time to fall asleep, and we did not see an impact on the quality of their rest either.

Research on the effects of the moon on our sleep are not yet conclusive, but whatever the case, it’s definitely worth exploring how we sleep — and feel — as the moon waxes and wanes.

My own connection to the moon is more powerful than ever. When I lost George, my world was turned upside down and I felt like I had lost my future — everything I believed in was gone in a moment. But the moon and the stars have evoked a sense of hope. My connection with the night sky has deepened, I now feel trust and optimism with the possibilities of the future.

There’s a wonderful line in Walt Whitman’s poem “Miracles” that sums it up. He writes: “… the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring.” Tonight, I’ll be gazing up at July’s magnificent full buck moon, and I invite you to do the same. Like those astronauts did half a century ago, go beyond your comfort zone and dream of the possibilities that lie ahead. Let’s all look to the moon to find that next layer of courage to realize the unimaginable. Dream big — and of course sleep well.

(Thrive Global)

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