How Lighting Affects Circadian Rhythm

06.02.2017

In the modern environment of street lights, work woes, and glaring phone screens, it's no surprise more and more of us are getting less and less sleep. But according to new research, spending a weekend in the great outdoors could be the perfect remedy.


The new two-part study, published in Current Biology, took a group of human guinea pigs out to Colorado's Eagle's Nest Wilderness for a summer weekend while another group stayed at home. They weren’t allowed to use any source of light except for the campfire and, of course, the Sun. Throughout this time, they wore adapted watches that measured the levels of light they received. After two days, researchers carried out a series of tests to see how they fared.


“These studies suggest that our internal clock responds strongly and quite rapidly to the natural light-dark cycle,” lead author Kenneth Wright, an integrative physiology professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said in a statement“Living in our modern environments can significantly delay our circadian timing and late circadian timing is associated with many health consequences. But as little as a weekend camping trip can reset it.” 


The science says that your pattern of sleep is governed by melatonin. This hormone physiologically prepares for the body for sleep and coordinates our biological sleeping rhythm, also known as the circadian rhythm. The release of the hormone is partially governed by the surrounding light environment.

 


A podcast by Professor Kenneth Wright talking about this sleep and camping study


Following this one summer weekend, the researchers analyzed the campers' saliva and found that their melatonin rise began 1.4 hours earlier.

 

For the second part of the research, they carried out a similar study in the dead of winter. Upon returning, their nightly bump of melatonin occurred 2.6 hours earlier.

 

The issue of a disturbed circadian rhythm is much more than simply having trouble sleeping at night. A disturbed circadian rhythm has been associated with numerous health problems, including poor cognitive performance, mood disorders, diabetes, and obesity.


Unfortunately, regularly sleeping under the stars isn’t always an option if you have to wake up at 7am for work the next morning. The researchers say you can help address the problem simply by getting more bright natural light during the day and turning off smartphones and laptops an hour or two before you want to sleep.

 

Wright added: “Our findings highlight an opportunity for architectural design to bring more natural sunlight into the modern built environment and to work with lighting companies to incorporate tunable lighting that could change across the day and night to enhance performance, health and well-being.”

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