The Secret to Better Sleep Just Might Be in the Woods, New Study Says

The Secret to Better Sleep Just Might Be in the Woods, New Study Says

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Maggie Coughlan
Feb 8, 2017
(Image credit: Yarygin/Shutterstock)

Struggling to get restful, quality sleep? The answer might be as simple as trading your electronics for the great outdoors.

Whether it's one last scroll through Instagram or sending a last-minute email, the light emitted from screens affects sleep. A digital detox to reset sleep cycles may seem impossible but according to a new study published in Current Biology, it could result in better sleep.

Kenneth Wright, a professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, knew that to reset the sleep cycle, he needed his subjects to be free of any artificial light at night for an entire weekend and their eyes would need to be flooded with natural light come morning.

How could he do this? By sending his subjects into the woods — specifically the Colorado parks — in hopes of resetting their biological clocks.

Wright tracked the results of those who camped a week in the winter and once over a weekend, paying close attention to sleep and circadian rhythms by measuring melatonin, which regulates sleep.

Generally, melatonin levels rise a few hours before sleep and decrease upon waking. "In the modern environment, those melatonin levels fall back down a couple of hours after we wake up," Wright explained. "Our brains say we should be sleeping several hours after we wake up."

After the week-long camping experiment, the subjects' melatonin levels and sleep schedules had changed. They were now going to bed earlier and waking up two or more hours earlier than before their camping expedition.

Subjects who went camping for just a weekend felt the benefits too — their schedules shifted by a little less than an hour-and-a-half.

Wright's findings prove that natural light is powerful enough to reset internal clocks, but sneaking off to the woods for a week doesn't work with everyone's schedule.

Dr. Phyllis Zee, director for the Center for Circadian and Sleep Medicine at Northwestern University says if you're trying to reset your own sleep cycle, you can do it on the weekend and even at home.

"Over 60 percent of the shift can happen over a weekend. It's pretty amazing. We can on weekends or days off go out and sit by the window and just expose ourselves a natural light-dark cycle," she told NPR.

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