The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Why Is a Camping Trip the Ultimate Insomnia Cure?

Just seven days in the wilderness resets and synchronizes your circadian clock.

Do you suffer from insomnia? Are the pressures of modern living stressing you out? If so, new research suggests that a camping trip could be just what the doctor ordered.

Researchers at University of Colorado Boulder have found that taking a seven day respite from the chaos of modern living by unplugging your electrical devices, heading for the hills, and living with only natural light is the antidote for many things, including insomnia. The next time you are planning a summer vacation—head for the wilderness if you want to reset your biological clock and put your body and mind back in synch with the world around you.

The new study was published on August 1, 2013 in the journal Current Biology. The CU-Boulder researchers discovered that the synchronization of participants' internal circadian clocks happened in just one week for each and every participant in the study, regardless of whether he or she was predisposed to be an early bird or night owl.

The rising and setting of the sun directly impacts our circadian rhythms. Natural daylight impacts the function of every cell in our bodies. Sunlight dictates when our bodies prepare for sleep and when we prepare for wakefulness. In a modern world, these strong biological forces are thrown out of whack. During their week in the wilderness, the campers were exposed only to sunlight and the glow of a campfire. All personal electronic devices and any form of artificial light including flashlights were banned for the entire week.

It’s hard to believe that electrical lighting did not became widely available until the 1930s. Before the 20th century our sleeping, waking, and working patterns were based solely on available daylight and the rising and setting time of the sun. We have evolved for millennia to live our lives in synch with the rising and setting of the sun and the waxing and waning of the moon. In a modern age many of us are short-circuiting due to our circadian rhythms being out of synch. The epidemic of sleep disorders in modern society is a direct reflection of our disconnection from nature.

Dim All the Lights and Unplug Your Digital Devices

To research the effects of electrical lighting on circadian rhythms, the research team led by Kenneth Wright, who is the director of CU-Boulder's Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory, monitored eight participants for one week as they went about their normal daily lives in the work-a-day world. The participants wore wrist monitors that recorded the intensity of light they were exposed to, the timing of that light, and their activity, which allowed the researchers to infer when they were sleeping. The same metrics were then recorded during and after a second week when the eight participants—six men and two women with a mean age of 30—went camping in Colorado's Eagles Nest Wilderness.

At the end of the week in the wilderness, the researchers recorded the timing of participants' circadian clocks in the laboratory by measuring the presence of the hormone melatonin. The release of melatonin is one way that our bodies signal the onset of our biological nighttime. Melatonin levels decrease again at the beginning of our biological daytime.

It’s encouraging to know that spending just one week exposed only to natural light while camping was enough to synch the circadian clocks with the timing of sunrise and sunset. Professor Kenneth Wright said, "What's remarkable is how, when we're exposed to natural sunlight, our clocks perfectly become in synch less than a week to the solar day."

The Glow of the Campfire

Even when people are exposed to electrical lights during daylight hours, the intensity of indoor lighting is much less than sunlight and the color of electrical light also differs from natural light, which changes shade throughout the day.

After the camping trip—when study subjects were exposed to four times the intensity of light compared with their normal lives—participants' biological nighttimes began near sunset and ended at sunrise. They also woke up just after their biological night had ended. On average, participants' biological nighttimes started about two hours later when they were exposed to electrical lights than after a week of camping. During the week when participants went about their normal lives, they also woke up before their biological night had ended.

According to professor Wright, “Our genes determine our propensity to become night owls or early birds in the absence of a strong signal to nudge our internal circadian clocks to stay in synch with the solar day.” Becoming in synch with sunset and sunrise happened for all individuals even though the measurements from the previous week indicated that some people were prone to staying up late and others to getting up earlier.

“When people are living in the modern world—living in these constructed environments—we have the opportunity to have a lot of differences among individuals," Wright said. "Some people are morning types and others like to stay up later. What we found is that natural light-dark cycles provide a strong signal that reduces the differences that we see among people—night owls and early birds—dramatically."

Conclusion: Limit Screen Time and Artificial Light for Better Sleep

This study adds to a growing body of research that confirms how potent the impact of exposure to natural light is on our biology and well-being. The study offers some possible solutions for people who are struggling with sleep disorders.

If you are someone who suffers from insomnia or is inclined to be a night owl, the researchers suggest that you seek more exposure to natural sunlight in the morning and midday to reset your biological clock. Exposure to natural light throughout the day will help nudge your internal clock to synchronize with the natural circadian rhythms of the season and the world around you. 

Kenneth Wright concludes, "Dimming electrical lights at night, forgoing late-night TV and cutting out screen time with laptops and other personal electronic devices also may help internal circadian clocks stay more closely attuned with the solar day.”

If you are interested in learning more about the power of circadian rhythms and for more practical tips on synchronizing your biological clock please check out my previous Psychology Today blogs: “Circadian Rhythms Linked to Aging and Well-Being”, “Summer Solstice: Romance, Rituals, and Resolutions” and “Exposure to Natural Light Improves Workplace Performance”.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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