Jet lag can really mess up your trip, but the good news is there may be a new way to treat it. (Photo: Stocksy)
Surprise! Quick flashes of light may be the sleep solution frequent travelers have been waiting for.
Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine are working to refine the optimal technique for using light therapy that could possibly prevent jet lag. The study, which was published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, may offer “a new way of adjusting much more quickly to time changes than other methods in use today,” as stated in the press release.
Current treatments for this physiological condition that affects more than 90 percent of travelers involve sitting in front of bright lights for hours during the day before hopping on a plane in order to encourage your inner body clock to transition to a new time zone.
The researchers discovered in a previous study that light therapy works best at night because the body’s circadian rhythms — which control sleep cycles — are more sensitive to light when it’s dark (as anyone who needs blackout curtains to sleep can tell you), even when the eyelids are closed. But in this latest investigation, they found that short flashes of light during the nighttime hours could even speed up the process of adjusting to a different time on the clock.
Nearly 40 volunteers were placed on a routine sleep-wake cycle (where they went to bed and woke up at the same time each day) for about two weeks. During their overnight stays in a lab, some of the participants were exposed to continuous light for an hour while the others were exposed to a sequence of 2-millisecond flashes of light (similar to a camera’s flash), 10 seconds apart, for one hour.
The results: The subject’s brains can be tricked into adjusting more quickly to disturbances in sleep cycles by increasing how long he or she is exposed to light prior to traveling to a new time zone. Those who were offered the flashing light experienced about a two-hour delay in the onset of sleepiness. The group who was exposed to the on-going light had a delay of just 36 minutes.
The flashing light concept stems from earlier work on mice conducted by the senior study author’s colleague. “We spent several years discussing doing this project in humans, but it took a while for me to get over my skepticism,” Jamie M. Zeitzer, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in the Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine at Stanford University, tells Yahoo Health. “Research that came out after that initial study showed that there was a plausible biological mechanism for this effect that might work in humans, which lead us to actually test this.”
He explains that this mechanism involves the cells in the eye that transmits information about light from the eye to the central circadian clock in the brain.
“These cells, unlike most other cells in the eye, continue to respond to a light for several minutes after the light is turned off,” says Dr. Zeitzer. “Thus, while we are providing flashes of light, these cells ‘see’ the light as continuous. The advantage of the flashes over continuous light is that the darkness between the flashes allows the cells that respond to the light to become more sensitive — dark adapt, like your eyes do in a dark movie theater.”
While this flashing light treatment (which would benefit travelers, as well as shift workers) is not yet on the market, Dr. Zeitzer is currently advising a technology-based start-up company, LumosTech, “on designing masks that could be worn during sleep, have LEDs in them, and can be controlled with a smart phone. They have been testing prototypes and I hope that they are available by this summer.”
Dr. Zeitzer has no financial interest in this business.