A recent article on Condé Nast Traveler describes how a team of Stanford University researchers are discovering how to eliminate the dreaded side effects of jet lag.
Most of us have been there: We step off a long international flight, eager to explore a new place, only to soon be waylaid by numbing fatigue and the feeling that you’re sinking, slowly, into quicksand. While there is a spate of products out there claiming to help reduce jet lag—a smoothie! homeopathic sprays!—there is no one-size-fits-all formula to abolish this nasty side effect of travel. Until, maybe, now.
New research by a team of scientists at Stanford University shows that exposing people to short flashes of light while they’re sleeping can work quickly and efficiently to delay the onset of jet lag; it’s an alternative approach to current light-therapy practices, which support sitting in front of bright lights for hours at a time the day prior to travel. In a study published February 8 online in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, scientists found that short flashes during sleep are actually more effective than continuous light exposure because of the ways the flashes fool the brain into adjusting to an awake cycle.
Flashing lights are also thought to help reset the circadian system, which controls sleep timing, hormone release, and moods. Given that jet lag occurs when sleep patterns are not synced with circadian systems, the flashing trains the brain to adjust more quickly to time changes. Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine and the senior author of the study, likened it to a kind of “biological hacking.”
The body typically adjusts to a new time zone at a rate of around one hour per day—meaning that a five-hour time difference would take the body five days to acclimate without any sort of treatment. “If you are flying to New York [from California] tomorrow, tonight you use the light therapy,” said Zeitzer, citing an example. “If you normally wake up at 8 a.m., you set the flashing light to go off at 5 a.m. When you get to New York, your biological system is already in the process of shifting to East Coast time.”
Participants in the study set a rhythm by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day for approximately two weeks. Volunteers were then split into groups, with some exposed to continuous light for an hour and others exposed to a sequence of flashes of various frequencies for an hour. The fastest and most efficient method of turning the internal clock? An experiment with two-millisecond flashes of light—think the speed of a camera flash—administered 10 seconds apart, which resulted in a nearly two-hour delay in the onset of sleepiness. For volunteers with continuous light treatment, this delay was only 36 minutes. And while there’s still more testing to be done before the technique is available to the public, you can rest easier knowing that hope—however flashy—is on the horizon.