3 Ways Camping Can Reboot Your Circadian Rhythms

Sleep problems seem to be the “new normal” these days. Most of the clients I see in clinical practice complain of difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep regularly throughout the week. Sleep quality isn’t the only problem. The average person gets a mere 6.5 hours of sleep per night (a far cry from the 8 hours our grandparents slept two generations ago) and over 33% of the population get less than 6 hours per night.(1) New research shows lack of sleep is also a major factor contributing to blood sugar, insulin imbalances and chronic disease (not to mention poor athletic performance), so rebooting your sleep and recovery are critical.(2) It seems late nights watching iPads, working on your laptop, or scrolling social media is dramatically changing our modern sleep patterns.

What can you do to reboot your sleep? A new study suggests the solution is simple… go camping!

Researchers from the University of Colorado found only a few days of camping was sufficient to powerfully reset your sleep hormone melatonin, critical for optimal recovery and rejuvenation. The study compared people who went camping over a weekend with those who stayed home and found the campers went to bed almost two hours earlier than those who slept at home.(3) Interestingly, even after the campers returned home from their camping trip their melatonin hormone output ramped up 80 minutes earlier than normal. That’s a very good thing if you struggle with poor sleep

Melatonin, your body’s sleep hormone, is powerfully influenced by your body’s natural hormonal circadian rhythms that run on a 24-hour clock and are triggered by exposure to morning light and darkness in the evening. Unfortunately, modern living - staying up late watching TV, surfing the net, or updating social media on your phone - exposes you to stimulating blue light which throws off circadian rhythms and thus deep sleep.

Here are three reasons why getting outside may be so crucial for setting healthy circadian rhythms.

1)    Exposure to Morning Light

The early morning sun is a major stimulus for healthy circadian rhythms. One of the reasons people struggle with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in northern cities with a true winter climate is because they typically go from their warm house, to warm car, to warm office without stepping foot outside. Even on a cloudy day, outdoor light provides greater than 100,000 lux of light intensity, a key trigger to circadian rhythm. Sleeping outdoors is a great way to reboot this ancestral adaptation.

2)    Early to Bed (It’s Hard to Stay Up Late Camping)

When the sun goes down and you’re camping in the woods, it gets dark very quickly. Interestingly, sitting around a campfire in the evening doesn’t stimulate your brain like the blue light emitted from iPads and mobile devices. The warm orange/red light spectrum of the fire is soothing to your nervous system and support relaxation in preparation for sleep. the That’s why most people have a hard time staying up late when they go camping.

3)    Seasonal Changes in Circadian Rhythms

Researchers also compared camping in the middle of summer, versus the dead of winter, on circadian rhythm adaptation. They found the campers circadian rhythms adapted differently depending on the season.(3) This has profound significance for the rest of the population because most people are busier, work longer hours and are more stressed during the Winter solstice (i.e.  shortest days of the year) compared to summer. These findings suggest we should take a lesson from our hunter-gatherer ancestors and get to bed earlier in winter.

The findings of this small study suggest a weekend of camping may be a powerful intervention for restoring circadian rhythm, improving sleep and recovery. Whether you’re trying to lose weight, improve performance or upgrade your health… a healthy circadian rhythm will support your goals

Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS