A week of camping in the great outdoors might be just what's needed for people who want to regulate their sleep cycles, according to a new study.
Given the chance, a person's internal biological clock will synchronize to a natural midsummer light-dark cycle, says author Kenneth Wright in research published online Thursday in the journal Current Biology.
The study, which was conducted by University of Colorado physiology department, monitored eight individuals over a two-week period.
The participants were given watches that measured their exposure to light and their sleep patterns, first in the context of their daily routines, and then in a camping environment void of artificial light.
At the end of each week, participants were brought to a lab where researchers measured their melatonin levels, a hormone that regulates circadian rhythms.
The study found that a week of exposure to true dawn and dusk had a big effect on people who might otherwise describe themselves as night owls. Under those conditions, they quickly reverted to the schedule of an early riser.
Though it is known that electric lights prompt later bedtimes, Wright said, simply being exposed to both natural light and natural darkness can help synchronize sleep patterns to nature’s midsummer light-dark cycle.
Toronto-area camper Lenore Zeekly told CBC News that the findings made sense to her and that she tends to go to bed earlier when she’s sleeping in a tent. She added that her internal clock shifts because there aren’t as many distractions such as email and television.
Fellow camper Kimberley Beam said she struggles with distractions too, but hopes she can take a lesson from the great outdoors. "It is healthier [to go to bed earlier] — you feel more energized. I don’t know how we take that to the city, though."
Wright said the findings can be applied to city dwellers. He encourages people to make small changes to adjust their internal rhythms, including taking walks in the sunshine during the day, and dimming electronic light sources at night.
"Light in the morning shifts our clocks earlier," he said. "Light at night shifts our clocks later."