Taking a Weekend Camping Trip Can Reset Your Sleep Clock
Nature has the power to destress us. But a weekend camping trip can actually help us get our sleep schedules back on track.
Camping for as little as one weekend can impact your circadian rhythm, helping you fall asleep earlier once you get back from the wilderness, new research suggests. And winter camping (brrr) might be even more effective.
Waking up when it gets light outside and sleeping in true darkness is what does the trick, the researchers found.
"Our internal clock responds strongly and quite rapidly to the natural light-dark cycle,” said Kenneth Wright, lead author on the study and University of Colorado Boulder integrative physiology professor, to the university.
Living in our modern environments can significantly delay our circadian timing, and late circadian timing is associated with many health consequences."
Running on borrowed (screen) time
Between staring at our computer screens at work and our phone screens everywhere else, our modern, everyday lives are positively light-filled, both day and night. Sleep experts say that limiting screen time, especially at night, can help us maintain our natural sleep timing. When that timing is thrown off, it can contribute to health issues serious and not-so-serious, including grogginess, mood disorders, diabetes and obesity, Wright said.
By studying three sets of campers, Wright and his team found that getting away from constant artificial light, even for a short time, can reverse its negative effects on sleep health.
Volunteers who went camping for a week in the summer were exposed to four times more natural light by day than usual. For this study, they weren't allowed to use flashlights at night.
When the campers got back, their melatonin—a chemical your body naturally produces to promote sleep and prepare you for nighttime—started kicking in nearly two hours earlier than it was before, around sunset. (The scientists measured melatonin by testing the campers' saliva.) The campers' melatonin started to fade—getting their bodies in gear for daytime—two hours earlier, too. Their sleep cycles had synced up with the summer sun, the researchers found.
Volunteers who camped for a week near the winter solstice got nearly 13 times the natural light they would have during their normal winter days. (If you struggle with seasonal affective disorder every year, this is very good news.) Without exposure to artificial light, their bodies were better able to adapt to and sync up with winter's longer nights.
Can you sync with the sun in 48 hours?
That's really awesome. But for those of us who can't (or don't want to) go off the grid for a whole week, what can a weekend getaway achieve?
When volunteers got back from a two-day camping trip, their melatonin kicked in almost an hour and a half earlier than it had before, almost 70 percent of the benefit of the weeklong trip. So, by upping your sunlight exposure and going to sleep when it gets dark for only a weekend, you can reset your sleep clock almost as well as someone who had been at it for a week.
To maintain the health benefit of camping for two days, you'll need to keep a regular wake and sleep cycle when you get back, Wright said. If you can't get away for a camping trip, try getting more bright natural light during the day and turning off your smartphone and laptop well before bedtime.
Wright said he believes the findings could inform light-based approaches for boosting work performance and treatment for seasonal depression and sleep disorders.