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Body + BrainBody & Brain

When Camping, Circadian Clocks Kick In

ByShraddha ChakradharNOVA NextNOVA Next

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Many people like to hit the trail and go camping to unwind for a weekend or unplug for a week. But little do they know that the great outdoors may also be resetting their circadian clocks.

Research from the University of Colorado Boulder shows that camping for as short as one week at a time turns even self-described “night owls” into early risers. By studying the melatonin levels in eight individuals for one week each during their normal routines and while camping, the scientists were able to monitor how exposure to natural light changed subjects’ sleep patterns.

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According to the study, which was published August 1 in Current Biology , our modern environment shifts our circadian clocks, the body’s natural timekeeper.

Here’s Deborah Netburn, writing for the L.A. Times:

When the participants were camping, their bodies started to release melatonin around sunset, and stopped releasing melatonin around sunrise—an average of two hours earlier than at home.

Additionally, the campers weren’t getting up for an entire hour after their bodies stopped releasing melatonin, making it easier for them to wake up in the morning.

Many of the participants woke up before melatonin offset at home, which is related to feeling sluggish in the morning.

The researchers are not suggesting that camping is a cure-all for sleep problems. The study was small, and the participants were all healthy, active adults with no sleep issues. The researchers would like to see additional testing on a larger number of subjects, across different age groups and cultures.

When at home, the subjects in the study tended to stay up until after midnight, while waking up at 8:00 in the morning. After a week of being exposed to natural light while camping, however, the circadian clock shifted two hours back even though they had complete control over their sleep schedules.

Natural Light
Camping exposes us to natural light and changes our sleep patterns.

So if you’re not a morning person, there’s hope yet. But don’t worry—you won’t have to start sleeping in the backyard. Rather, just to increase your exposure to sunlight, whether by keeping the curtains pulled back or taking a break from fluorescent office lights by stepping outdoors.

Photo credit: Flickr/Jimi M (CC)

Current Biology, Wright et al.: "Entrainment of the Human Circadian Clock to the Natural Light-Dark Cycle."