For many night owls, there’s not enough coffee in the world to make 9 a.m. seem like a reasonable hour to be awake. However, new research published in Current Biology suggests that keeping late hours could be due to electric lights, rather than genetics, and that there’s a simple way to reset your internal clock: a few nights in the woods.
For the study, scientists monitored a group of subjects with various sleep habits during one week of their normal lives. They gathered information on when subjects went to sleep and woke up, as well as their fluctuations of melatonin—one of the hormones used to govern humans’ internal clocks (also called circadian rhythms). They then took the group on a weeklong camping trip in the Rocky Mountains. During the excursion, they were not allowed to use flashlights, smart phones or other light-producing devices.
By the end of the trip, the self-proclaimed night owls had adjusted their sleep schedules the most—sometimes by up to two hours. And while this group's melatonin levels had been altered from normal cycles in the previous week, it had now adjusted so that subjects felt alert in the morning.
"When people are living in the modern world in constructed environments, we have the opportunity to have a lot of differences among individuals," lead author Professor Kenneth Wright, a physiologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Medical Daily. "Some people are morning types and others like to stay up later. What we found is that natural light-dark cycles provide a strong signal that reduces the differences that we see among people-night owls and early birds-dramatically.”
While the study is not definitive (only eight subjects participated), it supports current research that suggests that electrical lights disrupt the bodies’ natural circadian clock.