Losing sleep? Reset your clock in wilderness

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Zach Dischner

We know that urban life can be filled with stress and fatigue, and that time outdoors can rejuvenate us physically, mentally and emotionally.

Researchers now predict that bright lights may be keeping us awake when our bodies need sleep, disrupting our natural sleep rhythms. They have demonstrated that the best recipe for a good night's sleep is dark skies - one of the many pleasures offered in wilderness. 

A recent sleep study monitored eight volunteers while they went camping in Colorado. With the glow of a campfire as the only allowed light source at night, the volunteers sleeping patterns were synchronized with sunrises and sunsets after one week.

Results of the study are helping scientists better understand how light affects our body clocks. The sleep hormone known as melatonin stops being produced when receptors in the eye sense light.

"We are sensitive to dim light levels, even the light from cell phones in the evening hours is a cue that pushes our clocks to a later time," said lead researcher Professor Kenneth Wright from the University of Colorado in Boulder. 

It has become the modern norm for people to stay up way past sundown, and to drink caffeine to offset the subsequent sleepiness.

"The more we light up our lives, the less we seem to sleep," says Charles Czeisler, professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School. 

An estimated 50 to 70 million people in the U.S suffer from sleep disorders and sleep deficiency, putting them at greater risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression and stroke, according to Czeisler.

Instead of spending billions on treating these diseases, could physicians like Czeisler just prescribe a dose of fresh air?

"Light affects our circadian rhythms more powerfully than any drug," says Czeisler.

Interestingly, Wright's volunteers also experienced around 400% more sunlight than normal during the camping experience, a result of both rising earlier in the day and of being outdoors. Greater exposure to sunlight can mean even better sleep, as well as improved mood and increased immunity. 

"We think that modern electric lighting patterns and a reduction in exposure to sunlight are contributing to later sleep schedules and difficulties with alertness in the morning," says Wright. 

HIs recommendation for drowsiness? "Start off your day with a walk outside."

Numerous studies have pointed to countless other benefits of outdoor experiences, including boosting important brain functions like attention span and problem solving.

Wild places offer unique opportunities to restore our bodies, minds and spirits - all the more reason for us to protect them.