Is your internal clock all out of whack? Going on a camping trip could help reset it back to a more natural rhythm, according to a new study.
Researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder found that going on a week-long camping trip seemed to synch the circadian clocks of eight people to sunrise and sunset.
Plus, the synching of biological clocks occurred even in people who were clearly early birds or night owls.
“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. Some people are morning types and others like to stay up later,” study researcher Kenneth Wright, an integrative physiology professor at the university, said in a statement. “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.”
The study, published in the journal Current Biology, involved eight people who wore wrist monitors for one week that recorded their light exposure, the timing of that exposure, and their activity throughout the day (so researchers could get an idea of their sleep habits). The participants also underwent lab monitoring so that researchers could measure their melatonin levels, which helped to clue them in to the timing of their circadian clocks (our bodies release melatonin naturally when they sense that it’s nighttime and it’s time to go to sleep).
Then, all the study participants went on a week-long camping trip in the Eagles Nest Wilderness in Colorado. During this time, they had no access whatsoever to electric light (including light from flashlights and personal technology devices); the only light they had was from the sun and campfires.
The study participants underwent the same wrist monitor and melatonin testing after their camping trip. Researchers found that their biological nighttimes — dictated by melatonin levels — started two hours later before going on the trip, compared with after. Plus, they found that before the trip, the study participants tended to wake up before their biological nighttimes were technically over.
After the camping trip, researchers found that the study participants’ internal clocks were much more synched to sunrise and sunset. Their biological nighttimes started around the time of sunset, and they also tended to wake up right before the biological nighttime ended.
Electric light has been fingered in the past for playing a role in impaired sleep. A perspective piece published earlier this year in the journal Nature suggested that the advent of electric light has affected our natural sleep cycles, and may contribute to the rise of sleep problems.
“Technology has effectively decoupled us from the natural 24-hour day to which our bodies evolved, driving us to go to bed later,” the author of the article, Harvard professor Charles A. Czeisler, M.D., Ph.D., wrote. “And we use caffeine in the morning to rise as early as we ever did, putting the squeeze on sleep.”