I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight…
William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
There’s something about warm summer nights that makes even the most indoor person feel like taking to Titania’s leafy bed in the enchanted forest and sleeping beneath a star-spangled sky. Such bucolic sleeping arrangements are run-of-the-mill for the Queen of the Fairies, of course. But it turns out that they might actually be of benefit to the rest of us too. A series of recent studies suggest that sleeping outdoors can have a highly positive impact on the quality of your rest – and thus on your general health too.
The first reason lies in the fact that sleeping out resets your body clock to be more in phase with natural circadian rhythms. A study by the University of Colorado found that a week of sleeping outdoors resynchronized participants’ body clocks to solar time, regardless of whether they were morning or evening types when they began the experiment. The study suggests that this could help reduce the physiological, cognitive and health consequences of circadian disruption.
The reason is linked to the hormone melatonin, which is naturally produced by the brain’s pineal gland at night. Melatonin regulates the sleep-wake cycle and has been shown to lower blood pressure and body temperature. In outdoor conditions, melatonin production synchs perfectly with the sleep cycle. As a result, the circadian low point in brain arousal shifts to before the end of your night’s sleep, making it easier to wake up in the morning.
But the benefits don’t stop there. Research has shown that phytoncides – the chemicals emitted by plants to protect themselves – can protect humans too. In Japan, this has actually inspired a specific activity: shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. A Japanese study has shown that spending time in forests leads to lower cortisol levels, pulse rate and blood pressure. It also found that outdoor living boosts white blood cells and anticancer proteins.
So if you are looking to do yourself some good this summer, you might want to consider taking a leaf out of Titania’s book. Try shifting your sleeping quarters to a place where the wild thyme blows. The results could be magical!