Most of us know the feeling of a sleepless night – tossing and turning for hours at night before waking up with what feels a hell of a lot like a hangover (except without actually having any alcohol-fuelled fun the night before). But brewing a coffee darker than your outlook on life isn’t the only solution to your sleep problems.
Researchers have found that escaping to the wilderness for a camping trip for as little as a weekend can dramatically improve your quality of sleep by resetting that pesky biological clock.
For a long time scientists have known that our modern life, littered with smartphones and artificial light has been eating away our ability to have a decent night’s sleep by delaying our circadian timing.
So Professor Kenneth Wright decided to test how we could reverse this trend. In the first study, he sent volunteers to the Colorado mountains where they camped out for just two days. When they returned, he found that the extra time in the outdoors had injected them with some much needed natural light – their melatonin had risen 1.4 hours earlier than those who stayed at home. Melatonin is critical for sleep, because its onset signals to the body that it’s time to wind down and get ready to sleep. The earlier the melatonin kicks in, the better chance you’ll have of a good sleep. In the second study, he sent out five (courageous) volunteers for a week in the dead of winter. He found that they were exposed to a whopping 13 times as much light compared to their normal week and went to bed earlier and slept longer. When they returned, their melatonin had risen 2.6 hours earlier. Pretty much, their biological clock had synced with the sun and by the time was setting, their bodies were telling them it was time for them to head to bed too.
Without artificial light, the participants had got their circadian clock back on track – promising longer and better sleeps when they returned to the real world, as long as they maintained a regular early bedtime. This is good news considering a warped sleep cycle has been linked to a multitude of health problems, such as mood disorders, diabetes, obesity and poor cognitive performance.
Don’t have enough time to dash off to the mountains? Wright says get as much natural light during the day as possible and switch off your smartphone well before bed and instead opt for a book.