Back to Nature? Not for This Insomniac

Artificial lighting gets a bad rap in stories about sleep these days. Before Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, we’re told, our forebears slept longer than we do today.

There are reasons to think this might be true: Exposure to artificial lighting at night delays secretion of melatonin, in turn postponing sleep. Light at night can also reset the body clock, altering sleep timing and giving rise to circadian rhythm disorders and insomnia.

Advice for how to avoid these problems usually runs along the lines of dimming lights in the evening and getting plenty of exposure to sunlight during the day. Count me as a believer here. But the back-to-nature solutions some are touting? Meh, I’ll pass.

Electric lighting can be helpful and harmful to sleepArtificial lighting gets a bad rap in stories about sleep these days. Before Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, we’re told, our forebears slept longer than we do today.

There are reasons to think this might be true: Exposure to artificial lighting at night delays secretion of melatonin, in turn postponing sleep. Light at night can also reset the body clock, altering sleep timing and giving rise to circadian rhythm disorders and insomnia.

Advice for how to avoid these problems usually runs along the lines of dimming lights in the evening and getting plenty of exposure to sunlight during the day. Count me as a believer here. But the back-to-nature solutions some are touting? Meh, I’ll pass.

Camping

Some folks claim that camping is a sure path to better sleep. What better way to detach from our worries and synchronize our body clocks with terrestrial time than to pitch a tent in the woods? There’s science behind this claim:

  • Two years ago researchers reported that after a week of camping, eight adults experienced changes in the timing of their sleep, going to bed and waking up an hour earlier than usual and feeling more energetic in the morning.
  • In a more natural setting reported on in June, scientists found that people living without access to electricity in a remote community in Argentina slept 40 minutes longer in the summer and 60 minutes longer in the winter than people living with electric lighting 30 miles away.

As persuasive as these reports may be, living closer to nature is not going to improve my sleep. For one thing, I’m naturally an early riser. The prospect of awakening still earlier does not appeal.

And what about the bugs? All it takes is a mosquito buzzing around my head to get me swatting at the walls of the tent, and even if I manage to kill it I’m still wound up. And if that doesn’t keep me awake, the camping mattress will. I have yet to find a mattress that’s comfortable for my back.

Glamping

glamping

Glamping, or glamorous camping, might solve the mosquito problem and would certainly provide a comfy bed. But even if I could afford to “glamp,” I’d still be out in the middle of nature, and for all its virtues (I will admit there are some) nature isn’t quiet.

Nocturnal creatures were not raised by parents like mine, who insisted that to do anything but tiptoe around and whisper after 10 p.m. was inconsiderate and rude. Without so much as a by your leave, animals at night will shriek, snarl, snort, hoot, growl.

Light sleepers and insomniacs, exactly how is this going to improve our sleep?

A Glass House

glass-house

Here’s another shelter said to bring circadian rhythms into harmony with nature, deepen sleep, and boost our sense of well-being: the all-glass house. Its lack of privacy might give pause. Yet the all-glass house has one advantage over many glamping setups I’ve seen: it blocks out up to 85 percent of external noise.

 

 

Let’s Cut to the Chase

The main reason these back-to-nature solutions aren’t my cup of tea is that I’m a naturally short sleeper, and even the longest days of the year are not quite long enough for me. Going to bed at sundown—even when that means 10 p.m.—is a recipe for a terrible night’s sleep: tossing and turning, thinking existential thoughts, pondering insoluble problems. Who needs that when with the flick of a lamp switch I can pick up a book and fill my brain with happier thoughts?

Yes, I could read by candlelight or lantern. But that’s not nearly as convenient or easy on the eyes as the incandescent light beside my reading chair. I could also entertain myself in the dark by listening to a book on CD. But then I’m apt to nod off too early, and a too-early bedtime spells a night of insomnia for me.

I hear that some lucky people can actually enjoy periods of wakefulness at night. They let their minds wander and manage to achieve a relaxed, meditative state. But that’s not me. Artificial lighting saves me from the gloomy thoughts that are always ready to waylay me at night.

No doubt I’m sending the wrong message here: for every one of me there are a hundred teenagers texting and peering at their iPads at night and seriously shorting themselves on sleep. Turn off your devices, you sleepyheads, and turn out the lights!

But hey, Thomas Edison, here’s one insomniac who still thinks electric lighting is cool.

An Insomniac Goes Camping

For me sleep is fairly dependable almost anywhere after a marathon hike or bike ride, when it’s hard to do anything except pass out.

But some of the most miserable nights of my life have been spent inside a tent. Camping is where my two biggest nemeses—insomnia and a bad back—conspire to make the night a trial.

sleep-outside-tentThe renowned sleep scientist William Dement is big a fan of the great outdoors. In his book, The Promise of Sleep, he compares camping under the stars to the nighttime experience of our ancestors: “With the stars as our only night-light,” he writes, “we are rocked in the welcoming arms of Mother Nature back to the dreamy sleep of the ancients.”

Huh? The idea of spending the night outdoors does have a certain earthy appeal, and for me sleep is fairly dependable almost anywhere after a marathon hike or bike ride, when it’s hard to do anything except pass out. But some of the most miserable nights of my life have been spent inside a tent. Camping is where my two biggest nemeses—insomnia and a bad back—conspire to make the night a trial.

Disturbances in the Wild

I’m very temperature sensitive at night, and this can be a problem outdoors. In mid-range temperatures, I’m either roasting inside my sleeping bag or freezing under a sheet.

Quietness can also be hard to come by. Nighttime is dinnertime for many creatures, starting with mosquitoes. The nasty things are always buzzing a hair’s width away from my ear, and burying my head under a sheet to escape them creates that temperature problem, not to mention near suffocation. And how about the bigger scroungers of the night, the raccoons and the bears? Can anyone sleep with these creatures snorting and slavering around the campsite? I can’t.

The noise factor can be even worse in campgrounds. It may be easy enough to persuade the kids with the radio to turn the volume down. But what about the knife-toting bruisers across the way, who with keg and girlfriends get down to seriously noisy partying till 3 a.m.?

Bodily Discomfort

Then there’s the other question of what to DO when it’s dark and everyone else is sleeping. Reading is now easier with my Kindle and headlamp, but this is when my back problem comes into play. No matter how thick, those camping mattresses are a pain, literally. Finding a comfortable position for reading is a real challenge.

Then comes the moment when I’ve had enough of reading and fussing with positions and decide, finally, to turn off my headlamp and hang it up. Now the quest for comfort becomes a search for the Holy Grail. Trying to find a pain-free option, I flap from side to side like a tuna in a trawler struggling mightily for life: thwap, thwap, thwap. And I almost always wake up in the morning to a backache.

I like the idea of camping, and when I hear people like Dr. Dement rhapsodize about the stars and Mother Nature I feel envy that a night outside could inspire such appreciation for the wonders of the great outdoors. Me, I get stuck on the pedestrian discomforts of my body. I’ll pass on nights in the open and leave the camping to loftier, hardier folk.

How does camping affect your sleep?