It’s no secret that spending some quality time with the great outdoors can do wonders for human health. Even with the known upsides of lowering blood pressure and easing stress hormones, there’s something to be said for the therapeutic effect of the ‘awe’ of nature’s beauty.
That feeling of peace and serenity is adding to growing research that suggests nature can also improve our sleep, via resetting our internal clocks to a ‘natural’ sleep cycle.
Kenneth Wright, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of the new study, began his camping research back in 2013, sending subjects on week-long summer excursions to better understand the internal body clocks. He wanted to document how their bodies would react without electronics, using only natural light to align their body’s cycles.
Before and after the trip, Wright measured each person’s melatonin level – which tells the body when it’s time to sleep, and when to wake up. From his findings, he claims people’s internal clocks are delayed up to two hours in a modern environment. This news alone is noteworthy, as a wonky sleep cycle is associated to sleepiness, mood problems, and even obesity. Having said that, the study’s participants recalibrated their body to the correct cycle in the one week with nature.
Wright then set out to learn how long it takes for people to recalibrate their sleep cycles generally, and whether it could work in the winter (most people don’t camp in the winter, if you aren’t aware).
Again measuring melatonin levels before and after, Wright sent another group of participants on another camping trip – this time, in the winter. He not only found their internal clocks were delayed, but they also had higher melatonin levels.
“We don’t know what this means, but we do know some humans are sensitive to seasonal changes,” says Wright. “Some people get winter depression or may gain weight a bit more.”
In the second half of the new study, Wright was curious to see what happens when some people camp for only a weekend, while their counterparts stayed home. The group that stayed home generally stayed up later, and woke up later in the day, pushing their internal clocks off balance. The subjects on the two-day getaway, however, enjoyed internal clocks that shifted earlier.
“That says we can rapidly change the timing of our internal clock,” concluded Wright.
And while camping is a fun way to reset your body’s internal systems, there are other ways to facilitate the same goal of improving sleep. You can expose yourself to morning light, cut down on artificial light from smartphones and screens, and even dimming the lights at home, can all have similar affects.
Eventually you may become like Wright himself, whose schedule is so consistent, he wakes up at the same time every day – and he doesn’t even need an alarm clock.