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Flashes of Light May Be a Quick Cure for Jet Lag

This story originally appeared on Fortune Magazine

Flying around the world can wreak havoc on a body, with transplanted travelers finding themselves tired during the day, while being unable to sleep at night. It can also cause gut problems and nausea. So for business travelers on tight deadlines, a little "lag" is simply not an option.


Thankfully, researchers at the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine may have found a new cure for the effects of switching time zones: a system of quick flashes of light that are administered while you sleep.

Sleep researchers generally say that it takes the body one hour (or time zone) per day to adjust to the local time. But according to research released Monday in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, Stanford researchers have found that exposing sleepers to an hour of short bursts of light (about one flash every 10 seconds) made it possible for bodies to adjust two or three hours forward or backwards in a single day.

Study co-author Jamie Zeitzer, an assistant professor of sleep medicine at Stanford, says the treatment works because when we're exposed to short pulses of light, the cells in our eyes have time to regenerate in between each flash. Our eyes stay sensitive to each new pulse of light, making the treatment more effective, all while we're sound asleep.

In practice, the method would work like this: a business traveler on his or her way across the country from California to New York could program an hour of light flashes to go off while they are sleeping, early in the morning, the day before their trip. The next day, when they arrive on the East Coast, the traveler would already have the internal clock of a New Yorker, three hours ahead.

Of course, in order for people to put the technique into practice, the researchers need a travel-friendly light that can be taken out of the lab. For that, Zeitzer has partnered with a team of Stanford researchers who are developing a sleep mask outfitted with LED lights that can be controlled by a smartphone. Their new startup is called Lumos Tech.

But the tech isn't just being developed for terrestrial travelers, says Zeitzer. NASA has also contracted with the team to develop something for astronauts, who sometimes work "slam shifts" that require instant switching from U.S. to Russian time to coordinate landings at the International Space Station.

For now, however, the flash forward technique still needs more research to better understand how it will work outside lab settings. But if the tech takes off, maybe someday that old "jet lag" excuse will just be a flashback.

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