According to the results of a recent study published in Current Biology, a little visit with Mother Nature may be the solution to all your sleeping woes. The authors of the report found that the key to resetting a person’s internal clock doesn’t come with a prescription, and instead can be as simple as a few technology-free nights spent outside.
It turns out that the artificial glow from our phones, computers and TVs tend to throw our internal clocks out of whack, causing us to stay up later than usual. As a result, many of us often wake up feeling groggy and tired in the morning.
The solution? The study’s lead author, Kenneth Wright, a professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, suggested staying away from all artificial lights at night for at least a weekend and drenching your eyes in natural morning light.
To reach this conclusion, researchers dispatched small groups of people on a weeklong winter camping trip, and on a weekend trip in the summer. Scientists charted each participant’s sleep schedules, and measured their levels of melatonin—the hormone that makes us feel tired and helps to regulate wakefulness and sleep—to monitor their circadian rhythms.
In the winter study, Wright and his colleagues had four men and one woman to go about their normal schedules for a week and then measured their melatonin levels. Levels of the hormone are supposed rise a couple of hours before we sleep, and fall right when we wake up.
"In the modern environment, those melatonin levels fall back down a couple of hours after we wake up," Wright tells NPR. "Our brains say we should be sleeping several hours after we wake up." What that means is that the participants' sleep and wake times were slightly out of step with their internal clocks, which means they’re basically always a little jetlagged.
The five volunteers were then taken on a weeklong camping trip in the Rocky Mountains. On the trip, bedtimes got earlier and earlier until the volunteers were falling asleep 2.5 hours earlier than they had at home. Wright found that their melatonin levels matched. After the weekend trip, participants’ sleep schedules were shifted by a little less than an hour and a half.
Scientists believe that being outside forces our bodies to fall in sync with natural light and dark cycles. Furthermore, natural light, and morning sunshine in particular, is enriched with blue light, which has a very powerful influence on setting internal clocks.
If camping’s not your thing, consider copying the natural light-dark cycle at home on a weekend. Turn off your electronics and go to bed and wake up with the sun.