Re­joice all you sleepy heads

A few days of camp­ing can help re­set your cir­ca­dian clock

The Hamilton Spectator - - HEALTH - BEN GUARINO Wash­ing­ton Post

In Jan­uary, Ari­anna Huff­in­g­ton, who for years has de­scribed her­self as a “sleep evan­ge­list,” turned her evan­ge­lism on the soon-to-be-in­au­gu­rated Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. Speak­ing in Davos, Switzer­land, Huff­in­g­ton called Trump “the poster child of sleep de­pri­va­tion” and ar­gued that he “should be sep­a­rated from his phone at night, get a full night’s sleep and stop tweet­ing in the mid­dle of the night.”

Trump sleeps about two to four hours nightly, The Post re­ported in Novem­ber. In that re­gard, the U.S. pres­i­dent has some­thing in com­mon with many of us.

We are so delin­quent about get­ting con­sis­tent sleep, ac­cord­ing to a 2016 re­port from the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, that a third of the pop­u­la­tion snoozes for fewer than seven rec­om­mended hours of sleep a night.

Per­haps Huff­in­g­ton should be­come a camp­ing ad­vo­cate, too. As the week­end war­rior knows, falling asleep may come a lit­tle eas­ier when it hap­pens be­neath the stars.

A new re­port from the Univer­sity of Colorado, Boul­der, backs up that woodsy wis­dom with ev­i­dence taken from a small group of campers.

A week­end trip was enough to make a dif­fer­ence in the rise and fall of the hor­mone mela­tonin, which reg­u­lates our bi­o­log­i­cal clock. And a week spent out­side in win­ter shifted sleep times ear­lier and re­set the body’s cir­ca­dian clock.

“Liv­ing in our mod­ern en­vi­ron­ments can sig­nif­i­cantly de­lay our cir­ca­dian tim­ing and late cir­ca­dian tim­ing is as­so­ci­ated with many health con­se­quences,” said Ken­neth P. Wright, a sleep re­searcher and au­thor of the new study published in the jour­nal Cell, in a news re­lease.

“But as lit­tle as a week­end camp­ing trip can re­set it.”

Wright’s pre­vi­ous re­search sug­gested a week of sum­mer camp­ing was enough to shift sleep­ers to be more in sync with the rise and fall of the sun. “Lights have a pow­er­ful ef­fect be­yond vi­sion,” Wright told Pop­u­lar Me­chan­ics in 2013, when the sum­mer study was published. “When we go abat­ing that in­ter­nal bi­o­log­i­cal time, there are con­se­quences.”

In the first part of the 2017 fol­lowup study, Wright and his col­leagues wanted to know if less time spent out­doors would have a sim­i­lar ef­fect. They com­pared nine campers, who spent two sum­mer days and nights out­doors in Colorado, against five peo­ple who stayed in­doors for a week­end. They were ex­posed to a four­fold in­crease in nat­u­ral light. Saliva swabs of the week­end campers re­vealed their mela­tonin lev­els rose 1.4 hours sooner each evening.

Although they did not go to sleep ear­lier than they had dur­ing the week, the campers did not stay up any later, ei­ther. For those who stayed at home, week­ends meant stay­ing up later at night and sleep­ing in later in the morn­ing. A week­end “phase de­lay,” as the sci­en­tists de­scribed it in the study, “con­trib­utes to so­cial jet lag on Mon­day morn­ing.”

The ef­fect was not quite as pro­found as spend­ing a week out­side, but it was still a sig­nif­i­cant change.

“Week­end ex­po­sure to nat­u­ral light was suf­fi­cient to achieve 69 per cent of the shift in cir­ca­dian tim­ing we pre­vi­ously re­ported af­ter a week’s ex­po­sure to nat­u­ral light,” Wright said in the state­ment.

The se­cond ap­proach asked a dif­fer­ent ques­tion — would there be a sea­sonal dif­fer­ence be­tween a week spent out­doors in the win­ter ver­sus the sum­mer? Win­ter campers, as you would ex­pect, were ex­posed to fewer total hours of sun­light than sum­mer campers.

But the light win­ter campers re­ceived was 13 times stronger than if they had spent a win­ter week in­doors; the sci­en­tists at­tribute this dif­fer­ence to the fact that, dur­ing win­ter, a larger pro­por­tion of our light is ar­ti­fi­cial. The Rocky Moun­tain campers fell asleep about 2.5 hours ear­lier, and slept for longer amounts.

“In sum­mary,” con­cluded the re­searchers, “our find­ings demon­strate 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.’”

But camp­ing should not be viewed as a panacea for the sleep­de­prived, as Wright made clear in an in­ter­view with the BBC.

“We’re not say­ing camp­ing is the an­swer here, but we can in­tro­duce more nat­u­ral light to mod­ern life,” he said. Un­less an ef­fort is made to keep up with a nat­u­ral cy­cle, such as early morn­ing out­door walks and wean­ing our­selves from screens in the evening, we are likely to re­turn to our in­door habits.

Sleep ex­perts have long cau­tioned that dis­rupted cir­ca­dian rhythms have last­ing im­pacts.

“We are the supremely ar­ro­gant species; we feel we can aban­don four bil­lion years of evo­lu­tion and ig­nore the fact that we have evolved un­der a light-dark cy­cle,” Univer­sity of Ox­ford cir­ca­dian neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gist Rus­sell Fos­ter told the BBC in 2014.

“What we do as a species, per­haps uniquely, is over­ride the clock. And long-term act­ing against the clock can lead to se­ri­ous health prob­lems.”

Late cir­ca­dian tim­ing, Wright and his col­leagues noted in the new paper, has been as­so­ci­ated with poor school per­for­mance, obe­sity and mood dis­or­ders.

The au­thors of the study ar­gued that, even when we can­not get away into a camp­ground for the week­end, lessons from the out­doors can be ap­plied to our in­door lives. Ar­chi­tects could con­sider fun­nel­ing more nat­u­ral light into a build­ing, for in­stance, Wright said in the news re­lease.

He en­cour­aged “light­ing com­pa­nies to in­cor­po­rate tun­able light­ing that could change across the day and night.”

And, yes, good sleep hy­giene also means let­ting go of phones and log­ging off Twit­ter as you pre­pare to hit the hay.


A Univer­sity of Colorado re­port found a week spent out­side in win­ter — thanks to the ex­po­sure to 9 hours of sun­light daily, rather than the ar­ti­fi­cial stuff — shifted sleep times ear­lier and re­set the body’s cir­ca­dian clock.

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