Camping
Credit: David Webb

By Victoria Carnaghan

Camping enthusiasts may not need an excuse to get outside this season—but for those who are tossing and turning at night, the answer to a good night’s sleep may lie in the great outdoors. 

A 2013 study suggested that camping for a week could help reset an adult’s sleep cycle, making it easier to fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning. 

Researchers from the University of Colorado found that after a healthy group of thirtysomethings went tenting for a week—using only natural light, such as sunshine and campfires—their bodies started winding down around sunset and naturally waking up at sunrise. 

The results suggested bright sunshine actually reset the subjects’ biological clocks, helping them get a consistent night’s sleep.

 “They were really truly in sync with environment, not like in the modern environment,” said Kenneth Wright, a professor at the university’s Department of Integrative Physiology and lead author of the study. 

This, he says, is good news for people who want to reverse the effects of being stuck indoors in front of a screen all day. The key is exposure to natural sunlight, he added, which at its peak is 100 times more powerful than indoor lighting.

“Not everyone can go camping for a week, but what the study really demonstrates is that there are things we can do in our everyday lives to increase exposure to natural light—a morning walk, a bike ride, we can dim down our computers at night, go outside for your 15-minute break to get that sunlight—all of that can help push our clocks earlier [to get more sleep at night].”

Sunshine’s effect is received through the eyes, which means people can cover up and wear sunscreen and still reap benefits, he added.

The results were so promising that the research team launched two follow-up studies: a shorter weekend camping trip and a weeklong winter camping trip. Results from both studies are expected to be released later this year.

The beneficial effect of getting the right type of light at the right time of day is well documented, agrees Dr. Charles Samuels, medical director of the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary, Alberta.

This point is especially important to people who live in northern climates, he adds.

 “The farther north you are, the bigger the impact, because light is more extreme the farther away you are from the equator. In Canada we tend to be affected by this because we are further away from the equator, which means shorter exposure to light as we progress to winter.”

Dr. Samuels says research suggests that it doesn’t matter whether the light is simulated or natural—as long as it is the right power and wavelength, it can help stabilize a person’s sleep cycle. For example, he and his team recommend athletes use Seasonal Affective Disorder lamps (artificial light), paired with caffeine and protein, to help them be alert and ready for pre-dawn practises.

Samuels added, in today’s world, any activity that encourages people to exercise and unplug from electronic devices is a great way to improve quality of life and quality of sleep.

 “Getting outside routinely during the day and getting light exposure—preferably during the morning to help wake you up—is really healthy.” 

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