Being forced to stay inside so much these days reminded me of a wonderful essay I read a few years ago by Jill Neimark about her journey back to life after being left incapacitated by a devastating environmental illness.1
How did she do it? She lived outdoors by camping in state forest in the Georgia mountains. Her recovery seemed in part due to exposure to natural sunlight, clean food, and fresh air but also from connecting daily and mindfully with nature’s subtle quiet energy.
This quote from her story really spoke to me: “…living outside changes you. You slowly unspool from civilization, and the more you embed yourself in nature, the deeper the alchemy. Most of us sense this; it might be why camping, hiking and wilderness adventures seem to be an ever-greater obsession.” 1
There’s some interesting research in this area examining what might be happening on a biological level. This short video describes an interesting research project done at the University of Colorado by Kenneth P. Wright Jr., Ph.D. and some of his graduate students in the university’s Sleep and Chronobiology Lab. 2
In brief, they took baseline measurements of sleep patterns (time and duration of sleep) and melatonin levels on study participants. They then sent them off camping for a week where they were exposed to natural light and dark cycles.3 Wright and his team then took the same sleep measurements post-camping. “Upon return, the onset of melatonin—a hormone that promotes sleep and physiologically prepares the body for nighttime—came nearly two hours earlier, near sunset. It began to wane, signaling the biological day, earlier, too. In essence, the campers’ clock synced with the summer sun.”4
These results suggested that artificial light changes our internal clock in potentially unhealthy ways. In an interview with CU Boulder Today, Dr. Wright said, “These studies suggest that our internal clock responds strongly and quite rapidly to the natural light-dark cycle…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.”4
Dr. Wright and his team have taken their research a step further and determined that the human circadian clock is also sensitive to seasonal changes in the natural light-dark cycle. They conducted a study with 5 volunteers who camped “near the time of the winter solstice and returned to the lab to have their melatonin tested hourly for 24 hours. Measurements showed they had been exposed to a whopping 13 times as much light by day [while camping] as in their typical weekday environment during winter. While camping, they went to bed earlier and slept longer. Upon return, their melatonin levels began to rise 2.6 hours earlier.”4
According to Dr. Wright’s paper, “Late circadian and sleep timing are associated with negative cognitive performance and health outcomes such as daytime sleepiness, reduced driving and school performance, substance abuse, mood disorders, diabetes, and obesity.”5 The results of their latest study show “that the human melatonin rhythm adapts to short summer and long winter nights when living in a natural light-dark cycle—something that has been assumed but never demonstrated with respect to the ‘natural light-dark cycle.’ We further show that living in the modern electrical lighting environment reduces seasonal circadian responsiveness by delaying the beginning of the biological night in both winter and summer.”5
As you saw in the video, Dr. Wright and his team recommend increasing your exposure to natural light by starting your day with a morning walk, raising the shades at home and work to let natural light in and taking a break from working indoors and going outside. They suggest decreasing your exposure to electric light at night by lowering the lights before bed and dimming the light on your electronic devices.2
These are steps you can take even if you are spending time at home. And, I don’t know about you, but I’m planning to go camping as soon as it is safe to return to parks and campgrounds!
By R.A. Kroft
1Neimark J. The Camping Cure. Aeon. 22 January 2014.
2VIDEO: CellPress. Camping Synchs Internal Clock with Nature. 8 August 2013.
3Wright KP et al. Entrainment of the Human Circadian Clock to the Natural Light-Dark Cycle. Current Biology 2013;23(16):P1554-1558.
4Marshall L. Can’t Get to Sleep? A Wilderness Weekend Can Help. CU Boulder Today. 1 February 2017.
5Stothard ER et al. Circadian Entrainment to the Natural Light-Dark Cycle across Seasons and the Weekend. Current Biology 2017;27(4):508-513.
R.A. Kroft writes about her day-to-day journey in living a smaller, more sustainable life and other topics that interest her.
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