Nature, Sleep & You

Louise Shanahan

Are we losing our natural connection to sleep?

Scientists aren’t 100% sure why we sleep. It could be to conserve energy, to keep us safe from night-time dangers, to give the body (and especially the brain) time to repair, or perhaps some combination of all three.1 Our body simply tells us it craves sleep every night, just as hunger pangs tell us to fuel up before heading to work every morning.

But we do know why sleep is important. Sleep supports a healthy immune system, a strong metabolism, a good memory, improved learning ability and even longevity.2

Above all, a good night’s sleep just feels good, doesn’t it? Your head hits the pillow, your eyes close, and you drift into blissful slumber, before waking up full of energy… Or maybe not?

For many of us, a restful night is the stuff of dreams, an exhausted wish as we watch the clock inch forwards through the wee hours. It’s estimated that more than half of Americans suffer from sleep problems, such as struggling to fall asleep, waking throughout the night, and light sleeping.3

One reason why so many people suffer from sub-optimal sleeping patterns could be our disconnection from nature. As we’ve evolved to live in more concentrated urban areas, we don’t experience all the benefits of the natural environment. Our waking hours tend not to follow sunrise and sunset as they might have in the past, and so we’re less attuned to the natural rhythms of the body.

It’s likely that rekindling our connection to nature could drastically improve our quality of sleep, in turn boosting our overall sense of wellbeing.

How disconnection from the natural environment is affecting our sleep

Anthropologists believe humans have an in-built desire to connect with nature – what’s known as the ‘biophilia hypothesis’.4 However, a 2015-16 study of nearly 12,000 adults in the US found that around 60% spend less than five hours in nature per week.5

As we spend more and more time in urban surroundings, we’re overriding our instinct to experience the outdoors, and we lose out on the mental, physical and social benefits of being in nature. Walking in nature has been shown to be one of the best things we can do for our health – reducing stress, increasing longevity, improving fitness and granting access to clean air.6

Conversely, lack of exposure to the environment can make us more likely to experience asthma and allergies. It also limits our exposure to a diverse range of microbes, which in turn affects gut health.

Dr. Michael Breus, from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, believes ‘the microbial ecosystem may affect sleep and sleep-related physiological functions in a number of different ways: shifting circadian rhythms, altering the body’s sleep-wake cycle, affecting hormones that regulate sleep and wakefulness.’7

We also know that poor sleep can impact on gut health, for example by disrupting the hormones that govern our appetites. So it seems clear that caring for our biome might go hand in hand with quality sleep.

Re-tuning our circadian rhythm

If you ever sleep without setting an alarm, notice what time you wake. Your internal body clock uses the sleep hormone, melatonin, to know when to sleep and when to wake up. Melatonin levels vary throughout the day, decreasing as it gets light outside, and increasing as it gets dark.

As we rely on electronic light and less on sunlight, our body clock – our circadian rhythm – becomes out of sync, which affects sleep quality.8

Studies have shown that a typical modern environment can cause a two-hour delay in our circadian rhythm. One particular study showed a group of campers enjoyed three hours more sleep in nature, than in their homes.

We know that tactics like limiting daytime naps, avoiding caffeine late in the day, switching off electronic screens before bed, exercising regularly and eating healthily can all improve the likelihood of a good night’s sleep.10,11

But if you’re having trouble sleeping, perhaps a few nights under the stars could also help reset your body clock? Could rekindling your connection to nature help you sleep better?

1Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School (2007). Why do we sleep?

2Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School (2007). Why do we sleep?

3L Irish et al, Sleep Medicine Reviews (2015). The Role of Sleep Hygiene in Promoting Public Health: A Review of Empirical Evidence.

4Chris Kresser, Kresser Institute (2018). Are videophilia and nature disconnect harming our health?  

5DJ Case and Associates, The Nature of Americans Study (2018). Topic summary: adults.  

6Lauren F. Friedman and Kevin Loria, Business Insider (2016). 11 scientific reasons you should be spending more time outside.  

7Kate Leaver, The Guardian (2018). Could it be your gut keeping you awake at night?  

8Sarah Marsh, The Guardian (2017). Can't sleep? Get out into nature and swap your smartphone for a tent.  

9Kenneth P Wright Jr et al, Cell (2013).Entrainment of the human circadian clock to the natural light-dark cycle.  

10National Sleep Foundation (2018).Sleep hygiene.  

11American Sleep Association (2018).Sleep hygiene.  

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