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If you can’t sleep, try camping without your smartphone

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It’s all about that body clock

Campers in the Colorado Rockies who took part in the study
Sleep and Chronobiology Lab, University of Colorado Boulder

If you’re one of the estimated 50 to 70 million Americans who have trouble sleeping, you might just want to treat yourself to a camping trip. New research shows that spending time outdoors — away from artificial light like your TV and cellphone — can reset your biological clock, helping you sleep longer.

Scientists have long known that using electronic devices like tablets and phones at night is bad for sleep. Artificial light, in fact, suppresses the production of the hormone melatonin, which helps us feel sleepy. Scrolling through Facebook before turning off the light basically throws off your body's biological clock, so you sleep less and the sleep quality isn’t good. That’s bad not only because feeling groggy sucks, but because lack of sleep may increase your risk of getting cancer, gaining weight, or getting into accidents.

So, what can we do to reset our biological clock and give our bodies a break? Spend time outdoors and go camping, say the authors of a study published last week in Current Biology. The researchers led two experiments. First, they recruited five volunteers and sent them camping for six days in December in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Flashlights and electronics were prohibited. And saliva samples were analyzed to observe the shifts in melatonin levels while camping, compared to a regular week spent at home.

The researchers found that melatonin levels rose 2.5 hours sooner when outdoors. Basically, campers went to bed about 2 and a half hours earlier than they would when they stayed at home, exposed to artificial light, and slept longer. Even after the week-long camping trip, the melatonin levels kept rising 2.5 hours earlier than it did before the trip — meaning people kept going to bed earlier. (More research is needed to figure out how long it takes for this effect to be reversed, the study says.)

In a second experiment, the researchers sent nine people camping in the Colorado Rockies for a weekend, this time in July. Five other people spent the weekend at home, for comparison. The campers ended up going to bed nearly two hours earlier, once again sleeping longer than the stay-at-home subjects.

The findings show that getting more sunlight and staying away from artificial light can help us sleep longer in both summer and winter. If camping isn’t your thing, though, even just spending more time outdoors during the weekend, and staying away from cellphones at night, can help you go to bed earlier and sleep longer. Time to turn off Netflix and getting more zzzs.