"To sleep, perchance to dream" is an age-old saying. Have you ever wondered what the ultimate purpose of sleep is? Rest assured, science has pondered and probed the question for a long time and has come up with lots of ideas. Some have said it's to save energy, while others suggest that it goes back to a primal need to lie still at night to hide from predators. Now, two studies published in the journal Science are forwarding a new notion. Their thesis is that we sleep in order to forget some of the things we learn each day. They contend that we are constantly storing new memories in our brains and the sheer noise of all of this information can bog down its circuitry. We sleep so our brains can pare back the brain's overload in order to allow the circuitry to operate more quickly and efficiently over the noise.
While the debate over the fundamental purpose of sleep remains unsettled and is sure to keep researchers awake nights for years to come, the health consequences of a lack of sleep appears much clearer. The idea that lack of sleep can clog a person's thinking, spike their emotions and generally throw them off their game is commonly accepted. Multiple studies have shown that excessive sleepiness can hurt work performance, wreak havoc on relationships and lead to mood problems like anger and depression.
As noted in a recent article by Jane Brody of the New York Times, regardless of the reason for sleeplessness, it can become a learned response. The more one frets about a sleep problem, the worse it can get. "Insomnia is like a thief in the night, robbing millions — especially those older than 60 — of much-needed restorative sleep," Brody writes. And, while the causes of insomnia are many, they can be expected to increase in number and severity with age.
Kenneth Wright, a professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is the senior author of a recently released study on resetting sleep cycles. The study findings show that the most straightforward way to address the sleep problem before it becomes a serious health issue requiring clinical treatment is to end all artificial lights at night for at least a weekend and drench your eyes in natural morning light; to use camping to reset your biological clock. What he found with participants in the study was that their sleep and wake times were slightly out of step with their internal clocks, similar to being constantly being jet lagged. After study participants got back from a week-long camping trip, the jet lag was gone.
That bright light can affect our circadian rhythm — the physical, mental and behavioral responses, primarily to light and darkness, that follows a 24-hour cycle — is nothing new. But what this collection of studies makes clear is how an artificially lit environment at night can push our sleep timing further back, while bright, blue-rich natural light can train our circadian rhythms to sync earlier. Natural light, particularly morning sunshine, which is enriched with blue light, has a very powerful influence on setting a person's internal clocks.
The great outdoors has always been a tonic for a person's mental health. This appears especially true for city dwellers. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that just a few minutes of walking in nature was able to reduce depressive symptoms common in people who live in urban spaces. In a corroborating study, research out of Stanford University found that spending time outdoors helped reduce the kind of obsessive, negative thinking that might potentially lead to mental health issues.
While it's a well known fact that less than one-quarter of American adults get the recommended amount of aerobic and strength-training exercise each week, less is known about the physical and mental benefits of outdoor exercise. Outdoor exercise has been associated with increased energy and revitalization, as well as decreased confusion, anger, depression and tension, when compared with exercising indoors. Such workouts have the ability to boost mood and health, and save you the money that might go to a gym membership that might not be used.
And it's not like the benefits of camping are unknown as a traditional form of exercise and escapism, as well as healthy way to connect with family and friends.
According to the 2016 North American Camping Report, nearly 42 million people went camping in the United States last year. More than 1 million new households started camping for the first time; of them, 44 percent were millennials. Relaxation and stress relief was listed as a top reason for these camping excursions.
Unfortunately, statistics also reveal that the key component of Professor Wright's prescription is not being heeded — to forbid any electronics on a camping trip.
Perhaps it's the millennial influence, but shutting off cyberspace and connecting to green space is not happening. In fact, it's now trending in the other direction. According to the North American Camping Report, a majority of campers bring their mobile phones with them when camping and Wi-Fi continues to rank as a top campground amenity. Approximately 76 percent of campers go online while camping.
As to what doctors recommend, when it comes to camping, it appears we are experiencing the wrong kind of disconnect.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.