Camping at Massasauga Provincial Park this summer, I was reminded what I love about nature – it is like escaping into an arcane world, one with a very different set of rules and pace of life than what our modern lifestyles have us accustomed to. Electronic gadgets (iphones, ipads, tv) seem out of place in the wild, time seems to slow down, so that the stresses of the modern day dissolve. There is more time for the self, time for friends, time to bathe the senses in the beautiful Canadian wilderness.
For those with sleep difficulties, camping can be an effective way of resetting one’s internal circadian clock to be in sync with more natural cycles of light and darkness. In a recent study, Dr. Kenneth Wright of the University of Colorado Boulder invited eight participants to spend one week camping in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The only source of light was natural sunlight and campfire, with no flashlights or electronic devices permitted, and subjects were reliant on their own self-selected sleep schedule. Overall, participants experienced four times greater light exposure throughout the day compared to their normal indoor routines, with less exposure to light from sunrise to sunset. In accordance with the sun, participants found that they both went to bed and woke up an hour earlier, with less morning grogginess, compared to their normal routines. The largest effect seemed to be on ‘night owls’, who reverted back to a schedule more similar to early birds.
Our modern lifestyles in comparison have altered these natural sleep wake rhythms. The use of artificial lighting and electronic devices (tv, ipad) has led to too much artificial light towards the evening, and too little early morning light upon waking. This has an influence on the way our pineal gland in the brain (part of the circadian ‘master clock’, the suprachiasmatic nucleus) releases melatonin in response to these light-dark cycles. Unnatural lighting can trigger the body to increase melatonin levels later than normal, leading to a hormone level drop later in the morning, and to the feeling of morning grogginess.
A solid night’s sleep is essential to maintaining health. Poor sleep increases the risk for depression, metabolic disorders like cancer and diabetes, heart disease and leads weakened immunity. As the days become colder and shorter, and we head into the cold and flu season, it is important to maintain an adequate night’s sleep. Although camping may be difficult this time of year, one simple strategy to implement could be to increase exposure to sunlight during the day (i.e. a morning walk), and decrease exposure to electrical lighting at night, thus having a sleep schedule more in line with standard school and work schedules. Increased exposure to sunlight during the day therefore, may help improve the health consequences of sleep deprivation. It is wonderful to know that such simple, natural strategies can be implemented to benefit our health.
Wright K, McHill A, Birks B, Griffin B, Rusterholz T & Chonoy E. Entrainment of the human circadian clock to the natural light-dark cycle. Current Biology. 2013;23: 1554-1558.