Ever since ol’ Tommy Edison mastered the electric light bulb, it’s been tough to get a restful and restorative night of sleep. And now that we spent most of the night glued to a glowing screen of some sort, insomnia or fitful sleep is even more prevalent—that extra light messes up our circadian rhythms, or internal clock. The bad news? Inadequate sleep is linked to poor cognitive functioning, mood disorders, obesity, and even slower recovery from tough workouts.
There are all sorts of “cures” to try to get back on track. You could pop some pills, use a special app to dim the harsh blue light from your smartphone, turn down the lights in the evening, simply put your phone down, or close your computer an hour before you snooze.
But scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder discovered a method that’s even more lo-tech: taking a trip in the backcountry, they found, can reset your circadian rhythm and get you back on track for a good night’s sleep.
In part one of their recent study, published in Current Biology, the researchers asked nine volunteers go camping for a weekend in the summer, while a control group of five people stayed home. (Side note: Best experimental group ever? It’s close.) The campers came back after two days, when researchers found that their onset of melatonin—a hormone that gets your body ready for sleepy time—was 1.4 hours earlier than the homebodies.
The next camping trip came in the winter, and sent five volunteers out in the woods for a week. When they got home, their daily sun exposure was found to be 13 times higher than in a regular day, and their melatonin started ramping up 2.6 hours earlier. Both portions of the study indicated that you can sync your circadian rhythm to the season—just as most wild animals do—when you’re exposed to more natural sunlight and aren’t distracted by artificial lights at night. “Weekend exposure to natural light was sufficient to achieve 69% of the shift in circadian timing…after a week’s exposure to natural light,” said lead author Kenneth Wright, Ph.D. “This has been assumed but never demonstrated.
The authors note that these findings can help push architects to create designs that allow more sun into our homes and buildings, and inspire lighting companies to make adjustable lighting that could mimic natural rhythms throughout the day and night. In the meantime, check out for tips on how to make slumber a powerful tool for better health.