A New Way to Avoid Jet Lag: Sleep With Flashing Lights

Although exposure to a constant source of light can trick the body to change time zones, Stanford University researchers found that flashing light worked better. (Sleep Proofed)

In the sci-fi romp, Men in Black, top-secret agents used what Will Smith called a “flashy-thing” to erase memories of trespassing space aliens.

While that “neuralyzer” technology was strictly fictional (as far as we’ve been told), real men and women in white have come up with a flashy-thing to erase jet lag.

Stanford behavioral scientist Jamie Zeitzer says his team has figured out how to stave off the annoying travel fatigue with flashing lights during sleep.

Zeitzer, whose study appears in the Journal of Clinical Investigation this week, found that short flashes of 2 miliseconds each, delivered 10 seconds apart for two hours the day before a trip can help the change circadian rhythms, which act as the body’s internal clock.

That bio-clock is based on a 24-hour cycle and takes cues from the outside world, like the sunrise. It’s the reason you often feel tired at night and why you can wake up at the same time everyday without an alarm.

Zeitzer and his team exposed study participants to flashing light while they were asleep, using a xenon flash bulb in a Ganzfeld dome. Zeitzer says to think of the dome as “a giant ping pong ball that you put your head into. Wherever you look inside this ‘ping pong ball,’ the light is the same in terms of intensity.”

Stanford University assistant professor Jamie Zeitzer sets up a flashing light in his lab. His research shows that exposure to short flashes of light during sleep can help prevent jet lag.
Stanford University assistant professor Jamie Zeitzer sets up a flashing light in his lab. His research shows that exposure to short flashes of light during sleep can help prevent jet lag. (Norbert von der Groeben)

Even though their eyes were closed, participants still had light pass through their eyelids, which interacted with the brain.

The brain perceives the light, which essentially “tricks the brain into thinking the sun is still up,” Zeitzer says.

The light is administered at night because the body’s circadian clock is the most sensitive at night during sleep. Zeitzer says the timing of the treatment is important.

If the light starts flashing right after you go to bed, the body thinks the day is longer than it is. Those flashing lights are perceived as daylight and thus the body perceives an extended day. Which is what you want if you’re traveling from, say, New York to California.

If you’re traveling back to New York, you’d want to administer the light during the last few hours you’re sleeping so the brain perceives an early sunrise.

Because sticking your head inside a high-tech ‘ping pong ball’ isn’t practical for most of us, some of Zeitzer’s students have started a company to bring light therapy to consumers.

More than 100 people have beta tested LumosTech's flashing light mask and CEO Vanessa Burns says it'll be commercially available late this summer.
Palo Alto’s LumosTech says more than 100 people have beta-tested its flashing light mask and CEO Vanessa Burns says it’ll be commercially available late this summer. (LumosTech)

Palo Alto-based LumosTech has created an eye mask that has flashing internal lights and is controlled by data entered into a smartphone app.

In the app, you enter your gender, age, bedtime and whether you’re a night owl or an early bird. Then the app tells LED lights in the mask when to start flashing.

“There’s been a growing interest in sleep with the rise of sleep tracking apps,” says CEO Vanessa Burns. “People are becoming more aware that sleep is one of the pillars of health.”

Fitful sleep isn’t just a problem for travelers, it also affects shift workers, teenagers and astronauts. LumosTech has a contract with the NASA-funded National Space Biomedical Research Institute to provide eye masks for astronauts to test.

Commander Ken Bowersox (left) tries on a LumosTech mask at NSBRI headquarters in Houston.
Commander Ken Bowersox (left) tries on a LumosTech mask at NSBRI headquarters in Houston. (NSBRI)

“They were very excited about the potential use,” says Burns. “Astronauts experience multiple sunrises over the course of 24 hours and frequently need assistance to optimize their sleep cycles.”

By the end of the summer, masks will also be available for Earthbound travelers. The final price is yet to be determined but the company is currently taking pre-orders at $175. The last time we checked, a strong cup of espresso was still cheaper.

A New Way to Avoid Jet Lag: Sleep With Flashing Lights 12 February,2016Lindsey Hoshaw

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Lindsey Hoshaw

Lindsey Hoshaw is an interactive producer for KQED Science. Before joining KQED, Lindsey was a science correspondent for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Forbes and Scientific American. On Twitter @lindseyhoshaw

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