Not Sleeping Well? Blame the Moon

Lunar phases seem to affect the length and quality of our sleep.
John Glenn, 1967 (AP)

This week in the journal Current Biology, Dr. Christian Cajochen and team at the University of Basel in Switzerland claim to have demonstrated that "subjective and objective measures of sleep vary according to lunar phase."

All the more reason we should destroy the moon.

They write:

We found that around full moon, delta activity during NREM sleepan indicator of deep sleepdecreased by 30 percent. Meanwhile, time to fall asleep increased by five minutes, and total sleep duration was reduced by 20 minutes [compared to a new moon]. 

They made sure it wasn't just an issue of light/darkness, either.


Sleep Latency = Time it takes to fall asleep (Current Biology)


(Current Biology)

Cajochen told the New York Times, "The only explanation we could come up with is that maybe there is a lunar clock in the brain."

That's not very creative. Also it begs the question, right? Cajochen is referring to a concept called circalunar periodicity, which means our bodies have rhythms just like circadian rhythms, but in this case referring to a 29.5-day lunar cycle rather than a 24 hour day. They've been seen in marine animals like Galapagos iguanas. But the evidence so far in people is pretty squishy. Like Galapagos iguanas.

A body rhythm might, for example, manifest as less melatonin being released—melatonin being the hormone that makes us sleep. That way we can stay up and hunt while the moon is full, or just not get attacked by predators who are out hunting us under the bright, stupid moon.

The gravitational pull of the moon, meanwhile, is of course responsible for tides in massive bodies (oceans), but it doesn't affect even big lakes, so variations in pull on the human body seem very unlikely to be of consequence. Unless the oceanic tides tip off a series of downstream social/economic/cultural events that ultimately affect your sleep. Like the high tide floods the main street that diverts an early-morning parade onto a street right below your window, and that happens every month.

Do you have a compelling reason that we should not destroy the moon? Let us know in the comments.

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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