It you've been having trouble sleeping lately, we feel you. And it would be easy for us to offer you the usual suggestions like meditation, exercise, or chamomile tea—which all work really well, by the way—but how about something a little more fun? A new study from the University of Colorado showed that a weekend camping trip can have a profound impact on our circadian rhythm, helping us get to bed earlier.
An opportunity to catch up on sleep and enjoy nature at the same time? Sounds good to us.
Natural light is the best kind of light.
This study, published in the journal Current Biology, was divided into two different experiments. For the first the research team recruited 14 volunteers, nine went camping in the wilderness for the weekend and five stayed home. Results showed that upon return the camper's melatonin had shifted by almost an hour and a half, supporting an earlier bedtime.
What's most surprising about these results is that it only took one weekend to reset the body's internal clock, which can get confused by our crazy schedules and the artificial light blaring from our cell phones and computers long after the sun has gone down.
The second part of the study sent five people on a six day camping trip—without flashlights, cellphones, or other gadgets. Totally at the mercy of the sun and moon the campers went to sleep about two and a half hours before they would have at home. They also slept around ten hours a night, compared to their at-home average of seven. Monitors also showed that they were exposed to about 13 times more light than they would normally get and melatonin shifted by about two and half hours by the time they got back.
There's no such thing as a night owl.
This was a small study, but the results were pretty clear. Our bodies are naturally designed to respond to the normal light and dark cycles of the day. That means there's really no such thing as a night owl—just a confused circadian rhythm that might be out of touch with what's happening outside. Why should you care? A delayed sleep cycle has been linked to poor cognitive performance, mood issues, and chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity, which are on the rise.
And if you hate camping, you're in luck! Because "let's go camping" is not necessarily the take home message of this study. What we should really be thinking about is how we can set up our environment to be more harmonious with the natural light-dark cycle of the day. That means more light in the morning and during the day, and winding down with the sun.