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Camping Could Reset Your Internal Clock: The Answer to Sleep Woes

First Posted: Aug 03, 2013 06:02 AM EDT
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Do you have trouble sleeping at night or waking up in the morning? A week of camping may be the answer to your sleep worries--really. Scientists have discovered that humans' internal biological clocks will tightly synchronize to a natural, midsummer light-dark cycle if given the chance. This, in turn, can help you fall asleep more quickly and wake up with the sun.

In order to examine sleep cycles, the scientists studied the internal circadian timing of eight adults after one week of routine work, school, social activities and self-selected sleeping schedules. They had normal exposures to electrical lighting during the time. Afterward, the scientists took the participants to Colorado for a camping trip. They were not allowed flashlights or cell phones and were instead only given the options of sunlight or campfires as a light source. However, they were allowed to keep any sleep schedule that they chose. The researchers then measured the levels of melatonin in the participants, a hormone associated with sleep.

It turns out that a typical, modern environment causes about a two-hour delay in the circadian clock. People stayed up after midnight and woke up around 8:00 in the morning. But after about a week of natural lighting, all measures of circadian timing shifted two hours back and sleep schedules followed. The total amount of time spent sleeping, though, remained about the same.

"By increasing our exposure to sunlight and reducing our exposure to electrical lighting at night, we can turn our internal clock and sleep times back and likely make it easier to awaken and be alert in the morning," said Kenneth Wright of the University of Chicago Boulder in a news release.

The findings seem to explain an observed paradox in brain arousal. In our modern world, melatonin levels decrease to daytime levels about two hours after we wake up. In other words, our biological night extends past our wake time, which explains why so many of us are sleepy soon after we wake up. With exposure to natural light, the decrease in melatonin shifts to the last hour of sleep time, which helps people feel more alert in the morning.

"Our findings suggest that people can have earlier bed and wake times, more conducive to their school and work schedules, if they were to increase their exposure to sunlight during the day and decrease their exposure to electrical lighting," said Wright.

Obviously, not everyone can go camping for a week. There are ways to increase exposure to natural light, though. Go for a morning walk, keep your shades open at work and step outside during lunch. There's also the option of keeping the lights down low and turning off computers and TVS in the evening. It may not be ideal, but you'll probably appreciate the good night's sleep.

The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.

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