Spending a Winter in Antarctica set me and the rest of my wintering crew in a unique context that allows certain scientific experiments to take place in settings that would be hard to gather otherwise.
During the 15 months that I’ve spent bellow parallel 60º I was a volunteer (more out of sheer curiosity and lack of love for my own body than anything else) in several medical experiments that uses the unique conditions of our situation to discover a bit more about the workings of our human body.
The first of those experiences happened right in my first Summer and it was quite simple: all I had to do is take a small pill with 30 mg of melatonin before hitting the hay. The purpose of this project is simple. Scientists want to understand the human sleep process better, that is, what hormones and physiologic effects provoke sleepiness and the whole act of sleep in itself.
Well, there’s something really curious happening in the Halley’s Summers: it is very easy to simply skip a full night of sleep. How? Simple. During the Summer the Sun never sets or when he does, it is only for a few minutes at best. There’s no day-night cycle as we are used to back home and most of the time we found ourselves, at 5 AM, widely awake in the dinning room or bar area. There’s no “end of the afternoon” or even twilight . As I’ve mentioned before, my first new year’s eve around these parts was spend with sunglasses and lots of sunscreen over my face since the midnight Sun was high in the sky that day.
During Summer, to get a full “night” of sleep we need to “trick” our bodies into it. I used to go to my room one or two hours before sleep, close the blinds completely and get myself into sleepy mode with a nice movie or book. Its easy to simulate a night indoors when the sun doesn’t go down. The opposite is way more difficult. Truth is, once in a while I heard stories of people sleeping just two or three hours every night because they got distracted talking or watching a movie and when they realized it, it was already 6 AM. I believe that because that also happened to me a couple of times.
The melatonin supplement was used exactly to counteract that. Melatonin is a natural hormone, produced in the pineal gland inside our brains and its production is triggered when the Sun sets. Its one of those impressive facts about our human bodies. But today we know that there’s a relationship between the concentration of this hormone in our bodies and the state of sleepiness of the subject (or animal).
I took those pills every day for two months and honestly, I didn’t notice any difference. Probably because that Summer was spent running around the place and by the time that I got into bed, I was already plenty of tired. But then again, I let the doctors speculate over if it works or not…
The following Winter we did the opposite experiment. During the period in which we lost our beloved Sun (from May to August), during two week I had to use a pair of funny looking spectacles that “showered” my eyes with a special type of light that it is supposed to simulate the early morning sunlight.
Just like in Summer, when we were all wired up with the Sun always in the sky, in the peak of Winter the station went through a zombie period before we got our Sun back during the middle of August. Mornings were the worst. The strange thing was that we were already sleeping way more than in Summer but we still woke up all tired and cranky every morning and the first waking hours were spent dragging our feet along the dinning room, looking for unconspicuous spots were we could hide for a quick nap or grumbling uncoherently at each other about how tired we were.
The feeling is exactly the opposite of Summer. After a few days without spotting any Sun and our internal clock gets all messed up again. It is very weird to wake up at 08h30 and there a full Moon and plenty of stars outside. Even weirder is to have lunch with moonlight.. A big part of that feeling is lack of vitamine D. This one, like the melatonin, uses the Sun cycle to regulate its synthesis. The vitamine supplements, which I started taking almost religiously as soon as the Sun went on holiday, help a little and one does get a bit spunky after taking them. But doesn’t matter how many lamps we light up, it isn’t possible to simulate the big ball of fire in the sky and, as so, there’s nothing more that we could do other than suck it up and wait until it gets back in Antarctica.
During those experiments, as a way of measuring specific elements in our sleep, we had to sleep a few nights as a Bollywood version of Robocop.
Until this point, all science around this subject was a bit, well, subjective. We had to fill up a couple of questionnaires about our sleep quality and all that, but it was all just a tad open to all sorts of interpretations. So, to gather up concrete data, we had to sleep a couple of nights ridden with wires and tubes to keep the doctors happy.
The setup is used to measure up all vital signs and then some more: heart and respiratory rate, blood pressure, volume of blood oxygen, conscious state, etc… I had electrodes stuck even in my legs. Ironically, after our dear doctor had covered us head to toe in wires and adhesive patches, we were supposed to have a normal and restful night in order to get good quality data. But sleeping with a plastic box the size of an old cell phone under my stomach doesn’t really spell comfort to me. Those nights were spent waking up several times during the night because the box was stabbing me in the side or one of the wires got disconnected and now there’s a nervously blinking LED flashing on my face.
Just like with the melatonin, the influence of the artificial light in the morning, even when applied straight into my cornea, didn’t amount to much. I could only stop yawning and grumbling away after my first bucket of coffee of the day. Until then, the sound approach is to avoid even talking to me…