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Sleep And The Natural Environment

July 7th, 2021

When is the last time you escaped to the great outdoors for some time away from the bustling city? Mother Nature provides all the essential ingredients for optimal sleep that are often tough to come by in today’s hyper-modernized society: fresh air, natural lighting, and some peace and quiet.  

In fact, irregular lighting and air pollution may negatively impact our sleep timing and our circadian rhythms. Delayed circadian rhythms and sleep timing are associated with a host of negative cognitive and physical consequences including excessive daytime sleepiness, reduced work and school performance, mood disorders, and even diabetes and obesity.  

Fortunately, there’s one potential solution. How does a weekend camping trip to detox yourself from artificial light and drench your eyes in the wonders of a natural sunrise and sunset sound?  

The Benefits of Camping For Sleep 

Before examining how camping may impact sleep and circadian rhythms, researchers from the University of Colorado first sought to understand how natural versus electrical lighting affects sleep and our internal clock. They were able to tell the timing of our internal clock by measuring levels of melatonin – an important hormone primarily released at night which is involved in regulating sleep-wake timing and circadian regulation.  

Not unexpectedly, the researchers found that electrical lighting was associated with insufficient sunlight exposure during the day, excessive bright lights before bed, and an overall delay of the circadian clock – almost as if participants were perpetually jetlagged (also known as social jetlag). The authors also found that levels of melatonin fell back down hours after participants woke up.  

In other words, our brains are producing sleep-wake hormones that indicate we should still be sleeping hours after we wake up. This contributes to a misalignment of our sleep-wake schedule and our internal, biological clock. 

To find a potential solution, researchers monitored two small groups of people first in their modern (electrical lighting) environments, and then on a weeklong winter camping trip and on a weekend trip in the summer. Those on the camping trip went backcountry camping together for about a week in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. While there, they slept in tents and were only exposed to natural light sources like sunlight, moonlight, and campfires.  

Sounds cozy, doesn’t it? Better yet, the researchers found that just two days of outdoor camping was enough to reset the circadian rhythm.  

The author’s findings were published in 2017 and showed that, while camping, bedtimes shifted to about 2.5 hours earlier than they had been falling asleep at home. Participants also obtained significantly more sleep while camping. At home, total sleep time was about 7 and a half hours, and while camping, that number ballooned to nearly 10 hours of total sleep time during the winter camping study. 

These findings show that a weekend of camping may prevent circadian and sleep misalignment which contributes to long-term social jetlag.  

According to SleepScore Labs’ applied sleep scientist, Dr. Elie Gottlieb, PhD, “Camping and spending time outdoors can help regulate our circadian rhythm by exposing us to natural, morning sunshine. Sunshine is enriched with bright blue light and has a strong influence on aligning the internal clock.” 

How Natural Sounds and Green Space May Support Sleep 

Other factors beyond light – even access to green space and natural sounds – may also support sleep similar to camping.  

In 2015, researchers found that those with insufficient sleep had about 20% lower odds of being exposed to the natural environment. Access to green space and blue space (bodies of water) has also been associated with higher levels of physical activity which is also beneficial for sleep.  

Nature may even be a natural noise machine, helping to mask disruptive noises and even improve sleep. For example, results from a 2012 study published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology show that participants exposed to pink noise that may mirror natural, outdoor noises significantly enhanced the percentage of table sleep time compared to controls.  

Authors of 2010 study found that participants reported fewer awakenings and had improvements in objectively measured sleep when exposed to ambient sounds. A SleepScore Labs validation study also found that 76% of users slept better when using the Sound + Sleep SE Sound Machine.  

 Air: The Thing of Life – And Its Effects On Sleep 

While camping, natural noises, and green space may aid sleep, there’s also the dark side of the environment that may have negative effects on sleep: pollution and poor air quality.  

Air is the thing of life, yet air pollution is an unfortunate consequence of modernization. It’s also an overlooked factor that can make or break not only your sleep, but also your overall health and wellness.  

 Landmark studies published in The Lancet showed that air pollution contributes to long-term disease burden, while reductions in air pollution are associated with improvements in health. 

Research investigating the relationship between air pollution and sleep is still in its early days, but the preliminary results warrant attention.  

Authors of a 2021 systematic review found that air pollutants are potential triggers for poor sleep quality, and even some sleep disorders – particularly sleep disordered breathing and obstructive sleep apnea. For example, one study included in the systematic review found that as air pollution concentrations increased, the amount of total sleep and sleep quality significantly decreased.  

In addition to outdoor air pollution, poor indoor bedroom air quality can affect sleep and even performance. Authors of a 2015 study found that objectively measured sleep quality improved when CO2 levels were lower, as did concentration levels and performance on tests the next day. 

Pure air both in and outside of the bedroom may even be a novel way to support sleep –  a hypothesis that has been supported in a recent SleepScore Labs validation study. The study, published as a conference abstract in the journal SLEEP, found that healthy participants with the poorest sleep using the Alen BreatheSmart 45i Air Purifier had improved sleep efficiency and a reduction in the amount of wake after sleep.  

SleepScore Labs Solutions 

Download the free SleepScore App for insights and articles on how well you sleep, the quality and quantity of your sleep cycles, and sleep improvement progress with science-backed tips and insights.  Download it for free from App Store and Google Play Store!  

You can also visit the SleepScore Store for a wide range of sleep-promoting products carefully curated by SleepScore Labs’ team of researchers including lighting solutions, white noise machines, and more to support your sleep-wake schedule! 

Sleep well! 

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