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Camping Helps Set Circadian Clocks Straight

Update Date: Aug 01, 2013 03:36 PM EDT
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Many people are stuck in the vicious cycle of late nights and late mornings. However, a new study reveals that a week of camping in the great outdoors may help people set their clocks straight.

A new study, published in the journal Current Biology, reveals that if given a chance, our body's internal biological clocks will tightly synchronize to a natural, midsummer light-dark cycle.

The study found that a week of exposure to true dawn and dusk with no artificial lights had a significant effect on people who might otherwise describe themselves as night owls.  Researchers found that under those conditions, night owls quickly become early birds.

"By increasing our exposure to sunlight and reducing our exposure to electrical lighting at night, we can turn our internal clock and sleep times back and likely make it easier to awaken and be alert in the morning," Kenneth Wright of the University of Colorado Boulder said in a news release.

Researcher analyzed the internal circadian timing of eight adults after one week of routine work, school, social activities and self-selected sleeping schedules with the normal exposure to electrical lighting.  Afterwards, researchers took the same eight participants out camping in Colorado.  Participants weren't allowed to bring flashlights or even smart phones on their camping trip, but were able to sleep according to any schedule they chose.

While a typical, modern environment causes about a two-hour delay in the circadian clock, with people staying up until after midnight and waking up around 8:00am, after a week of natural lighting, all measures of the circadian timing shifted two hours back even though the total time spent sleeping stayed about the same.

Researchers explain that in the modern world, melatonin levels tend to decrease to daytime levels about two hours after people wake up.  In other words, the biological night extends past our wake time and explains why many of us are at our sleepiest soon after we wake up in the morning.  However, with exposure to natural light, that decrease in melatonin shifts to the last hour of sleep time and then brain arousal rises earlier, which would help people feel more alert in the morning.

Because camping isn't practical for everyone, researchers say some other strategies like going to bed and waking up earlier could help people set their circadian clocks.

"Our findings suggest that people can have earlier bed and wake times, more conducive to their school and work schedules, if they were to increase their exposure to sunlight during the day and decrease their exposure to electrical lighting at night," Wright said.

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