After one hour walking through the trails nearby the Costa Brava’s beaches, it seemed I would never encounter a place to set up the tent. “What if an animal attacks me? Even worse, what if it’s a person that attacks me? Or what if I start hearing strange noises at midnight?” Those were some of the thoughts crossing my mind the first time I decided to camp. I admit it, nervousness exceeded excitement by far.
After what seemed an eternity, I finally chose a hidden corner of a secluded beach that seemed quite appropriate. I unpacked everything and my sleeping base was set up in the blink of an eye. I remember thinking it would be impossible to sleep. The slightest sound or the most subtle light change made me alert. Why on Earth was I doing this?!
By dinner time, while a stunning sunset was distracting me, most of my fears disappeared. It was getting dark and my body started feeling it was time for a good night’s sleep. I took a look at my watch and… holy cow! It was only 10 pm! Was it possible to feel so sleepy at this time? Usually, I’m still having dinner (Spanish habits)…
Although I wasn’t extremely tired, it felt like the right time to get to sleep. My body was asking for it. Once installed inside the sleeping bag, I started noticing the darkness around, the sound of the waves crashing in the shore, the disconnection from the world but at the same time the strong connection with nature around,… And suddenly I was sleeping in less than 5 minutes.
I swear it was a night not to forget. Not only I’ve never slept in such an uncomfortable mat, but also mosquitos were feeding on me the whole night. Of course, I learned over time and after this experience, I bought a proper mat and a tent.
What surprised me the most about that first camping experience though was the energy I had when I woke up. I remember the sky getting brighter and the first sun rays bathing my face. It was really early in the morning and the quality of my sleep had been rather poor. But when I opened my eyes and I felt the chilly breeze hitting my face, I stood up instantaneously. No alarm clock needed. And no need for snoozing it five times.
What was going on? How was it possible to go for a swim just after waking up when I was normally a zombie and needed one hour to become human each morning? Could it be related to the fact of having slept outside?
Science backs it up
Turns out that I wasn’t alone on thinking that being outdoors could influence my sleep. More scientists also agree on that.
In a series of really interesting studies conducted by a team of the University of Colorado, they found that sleeping outdoors could shift the circadian rhythms closer to its natural state. The first of their experiments showed how the circadian clock of a group of eight participants moved 2 hours earlier after a week-long summer outdoor camping in tents and exposure to only natural light. In order words, at the beginning of the week, their bodies thought of 10 p.m. as bedtime, but after a week under the stars they would be sleepy and snoozing by 8 p.m. https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(13)00764-1
And they didn’t stop here. They also demonstrated the same benefits happen in winter, when there is less light and other animals are used to sleep more or even hybernate. In oder words, they found that the human circadian clock, similar to other animals, adapts to seasonal changes in the natural light-dark cycle, showing an expansion of the biological night in winter compared to summer. https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(16)31522-6#%20.
The evidence is there. And you might not be willing to sacrifice the comfort of your bed for one entire week to tune your messed up internal clock, but I have good news. You can restore your natural sleep schedule in just one weekend. The same research team did an experiment where they sent some participants to camp during a weekend while some other participants stayed at home following their normal sleep schedule. The participants staying at home went to sleep and therefore woke up lately than during the week (I don’t blame them, most of us do), so their internal clocks were moved forward and probably that wouldn’t felt very good on Monday morning… But regarding the campers, the results were quite astonishing: they achieved 69 percent of the sleep adjustment that had been previously observed in the week-long summer experiment.
There’s not only one simple factor that makes a night outdoors good for you, but it’s rather a combination of some of nature’s features. The most important one regarding sleep is being exposed to natural light. Our bodies function according to what is known as circadian rhythm, which is just an internal clock programmed to make our body feel sleepy, hungry, or active. A dance of hormones perfectly orchestrated makes sure that every 24 hours, the cycle starts again.
One of the most important hormones involved in the circadian rhythm is melatonin, responsible for making us feel sleepy. Melatonin levels rise in our bodies when it gets dark, indicating that it’s time to go to sleep. In the morning, the levels of melatonin decrease, letting our body know that it’s time to wake up.
But how our bodies know that it’s dark outside and so melatonin levels need to increase? This process starts in the retina. When the retina is exposed to daylight, it sends a signal to our brain saying that we have to be awake and that there’s no need to produce melatonin. When it gets darker outside, the brain doesn’t receive any signal from the retina, so the areas of the brain that work while we’re awake shut down. It’s then when melatonin production starts and it makes us feel sleepy (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1046/j.1365-2826.2003.00989.x). So, as you see, our bodies are wired to be outside and they rely on natural light to know when it’s time to head to bed.
Of course, in an era of technology, fluorescent lighting, and bright blue-light screens, it’s not easy at all to connect our biological internal clock with nature. “Living in our modern environments can significantly delay our circadian timing and late circadian timing is associated with many health consequences. But as little as a weekend camping trip can reset it,” says professor Kenneth Wright, a lead researcher on the studies mentioned.
The same benefits without moving from home
As much as I love camping, there’s not always time for it and it’s also not always feasible. After some research on how to resynchronize our internal clock, I found there are some easy ways to trick the brain and get the circadian rhythm back on track without leaving the comfort of your home. For those who can’t get away for a camping trip or don’t fancy the idea of sleeping in the backyard, it’s a great solution.
The best allies to maintain good sleep hygiene are natural light and darkness. Natural light tells our body it’s time to stay active and awake, while darkness prepares us for feeling tired and falling asleep.
To achieve it, I replicate my outdoor bedroom indoors. Firstly, I reduce the artificial lighting of the house after sunset. I change the lights to dimmer ones and I try to get used to the dark. Secondly, I put my phone in airplane mode and I try to switch any screen for a book, a good conversation, or a board game. This doesn’t happen every day but at least once or twice a week. And finally, I bought curtains that block the city lights but let natural light enter my bedroom. And that’s the recipe that got my sleep to improve dramatically.