When someone starts taking about productivity, and how to be more productive our mind often drifts off. We may think that to become more productive we need to undertake some difficult model of behavior or to adopt habits that we feel will be hard to stick to. However, recent scientific findings have indicated a week of camping can effectively change our sleeping patterns, which in turn can lead to greater alertness and productivity, because early risers are found to be more productive than night owls.
A study published on Thursday in the journal Current Biology sought to discover the effect that sitting under artificial light bulbs all day in the office has on our sleeping patterns. The research team was led by Kenneth Wright, the director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Wright stated: “We already knew that electrical lighting, especially at night, can push the time of your clock later, and that leads to later bedtimes,” but what they did not know is how ordinary light exposure during the day could affect our sleep. To find the answer Wright and his team recruited eight volunteers. Each of the volunteers were given wristbands that measured their light exposure and sleeping times.
The first week of the experiment required the volunteers to undergo their usual activities; such as going to work or school. “Then we took them all on a camping trip,” Wright says. “They slept in tents, and they received only natural sunlight and campfires.” The participants were forbidden from bringing any electronics that produced artificial light; even flashlights.
The results of the study
Wright and his team found that the sleeping patterns of the participants changed after their week of camping. Even people who were going to bed very late and were having difficulty being alert in the morning saw a change in their sleeping schedule; they were going to bed earlier and waking up like the early rises.
“If you consider people who are very late night owls, they stay up late and have a greater difficulty of being alert in the morning,” says write “After camping, we found that their clocks were shifted — and they looked more similar to the early risers.”
The participants continued to get the same hours of sleep in the wilderness as back home; their internal clocks simply moved two hours (on average). So they were going to bed and waking up two hours earlier. “Individuals who had the latest bedtimes back at home had the larger shift in their internal clocks after camping,” Wright says. By the end of the week all participants had become morning people.
Interpretation of the results
Two factors are believed to be the cause of the change in the participants sleeping habits. Firstly, the lack of artificial light in the wilderness setting allowed the melatonin (which aids in sleep) levels of the participants to naturally decrease at the right times. Such decrease in melatonin can promote sleep. Secondly the exposure to natural light that was achieved by living in the outdoors helped to set their circadian clocks, which decreased melatonin levels before waking.
This decrease in melatonin levels helped to prevent the groggy feeling or tiredness people can experience when they first rise in the morning.
Human beings evolved to work according to a 24-hour cycle, which was based on the daily rising and setting of the sun. Our bodies knew to secrete the hormone melatonine (which aids in sleep) just before the sun went down. It also had the ability to reduce the production of melatonine before the sun rose in the morning. This worked together with other biological patterns (our internal circadian rhythm). The circadian clock is a flexible system; it can slow down or speed up depending on how much light is around. Both these systems helped us sleep well and ensured that we woke up fresh and rested.
This system worked well until the invention of electricity and other electrical devices that allow us to have light at all hours of the day; including the night hours. As we spend most of our days inside, at school, work, shopping malls and the like, we miss out on a lot of sunlight exposure. Sunline is needed to set our circadian clocks. Thus, our modern way of life has in a sense put off balance our internal mechanisms that are supposed to tell us when to sleep and when to wake. This is why so many of us now a days have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep and waking up in the mornings.
What you can do apart from camping
How can you use the finding to improve your own sleep habits?
“We can achieve earlier bedtimes by having people be outside more, especially in the morning,” Wright says. “You could start your day with a morning walk. Raise the shades in the house. Or if you read the newspaper, do it outside.”
“On the flip side,” he says, “reduce exposure to light at night by dimming the lights or computers. This is especially important within the hour prior before bedtime.”
If you decide to make a big change to your lifestyle and improve your sleeping habits a week camping vacation is the way to go. Why not take time out of your daily routine and reconnect with the outdoors? Not only will you find that you will be able to sleep and wake earlier you may also find that you become more alert and productive during the day.