I'm always a bundle of nerves the night before a long-haul flight — not a great problem to have when you're from Australia.
Once my itinerary's set and my suitcase packed, I try not to think about the debilitating effects of jet lag that await me at my destination. I know the symptoms by heart: nausea, drowsiness at the wrong times and a string of sleepless nights.
Several decades into the jet age, there's still no proven way to magically get over jet lag instead of just waiting it out. Strategies like avoiding alcohol may help, and there's even technology that claims to speed up your recovery. Bracelets that promise to increase your production of sleep-inducing melatonin and headphones that beam light directly into your ears in a bid to reset your body clock are just some of the more unusual options out there.
But a new smart mask based on research from Stanford University could be the closest thing yet to a quick jet lag cure. The Lumos mask uses light therapy while you sleep to help you adjust to a new time zone faster. If you think it sounds too good to be true, I don't blame you. But when I tested it out on a round trip between San Francisco and Sydney, I was genuinely surprised by what happened.
Hacking your biological clock
The key to regulating our sleep and wake cycles is circadian rhythm. Essentially, circadian rhythm is the 24-hour clock that guides our body's desires to be sleepy or alert. Or as Dr. Alon Avidan, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at UCLA, puts it, "It's almost our internal thermostat telling us when to go to bed and when to wake up."
Special light-sensitive cells inside the eye's retina stimulate circadian rhythm in our brain, so when it's light around us we feel awake, and when it's dark our bodies produce melatonin. Light exposure at specific times can help regulate our circadian rhythm and alleviate conditions like seasonal affective disorder, delayed sleep phase disorders often seen in teenagers — and jet lag.
A light box, or a box with a translucent side that lets light shine through it, is one way to deliver light-based therapy, but light boxes are bulky and not designed for travel. Light therapy headsets that constantly beam blue light into your eyes are more portable, but because you need to wear them at odd intervals through the day and night, they get in the way of your routine activities.
LumosTech hopes to make a compromise between bulky light boxes and awkward-looking headsets. The Lumos mask is based on research led by Jamie Zeitzer, associate professor at the center for sleep sciences at Stanford University. Zeitzer discovered that short pulses of light, delivered while people were asleep, could change their circadian rhythm.
Vanessa Burns and Biquan Luo, co-founders of LumosTech, came across Zeitzer's research in 2013, licensing the Stanford patent to build it into a sleep mask. Controlled by a mobile app, the hardware module inside the mask delivers 3-millisecond flashes of light to shift your internal clock three or four hours while you sleep. By comparison, your clock typically adjusts only one hour a day on its own.
Pulsing light is more effective than constant light because cells in the retina continue to send signals to the circadian clock between flashes, and the pigments in the eye that respond to light can regenerate.
Changing your circadian rhythm is different for each person, Zeitzer says, but the idea is that this pulse light therapy helps you go to sleep at the right time and wake up at the right time. And it's still important to go to bed at the right time, too. "Whether or not you do is a different issue," he says. "This is really a therapy that has to be coupled with some behavioral effort."
Jet lag's a drag
As I wanted to give the Lumos a fair go, I took care to follow the directions closely. Once I entered flight details, the app told me when to use the mask and did all of the behind-the-scenes work to determine how many pulses I needed. The night before my trip from San Francisco to Sydney, I was to receive one night of light therapy, followed by another the night after I landed.
I went to bed at my normal time and put on the Lumos, which looks and feels just like a regular sleep mask with a little extra padding. (The battery lasts for several sessions before you'll need to charge it via Micro-USB). I fell asleep quickly, only noticing the flashes in front of my eyes when the sound of a door banging suddenly woke me. The pulses were a little disconcerting at first, like a camera flash, but I soon acclimatized and fell back asleep.
The next morning, I was alert but no longer felt completely on San Francisco time. I almost felt a little jet-lagged already, like midmorning was actually sometime in the afternoon. Burns tells me that's not unusual, as some people feel they are more on destination time after one session.
"You'll be hungrier at a different time, you'll certainly feel tired at a different time," she says. "We would expect partial adjustment the first night and then completing that once you arrive."
I didn't use the light therapy on the 14-hour overnight flight across the Pacific Ocean. With distractions like noisy passengers, Burns says adding a session of flashes to the mix could disturb my sleep too much. Instead, I wore the Lumos as a regular mask to block out external light and even though I was stuck in the middle seat, I slept for around five hours straight.
Arriving in Sydney at 6 a.m. local time, I was shocked at how much better I felt compared with previous journeys on the same flight. I was energized and stayed up until my usual bedtime, when I used the mask again. (Unlike the first night, I slept straight through and didn't notice any flashes.) The next day I felt totally adjusted to Sydney time, with no jet lag symptoms. Did it really work, or was it a placebo?
Avidan says the placebo effect was a possibility. "You will probably feel better as you expect there will be a benefit," he says. "People who use a specific medication already prepare themselves to be on their best behavior." But if I used it on my next five flights and still had a positive response, he would be impressed.
The direction of travel also plays a role in jet lag: East to west is generally easier than west to east (staying up later and getting up later is easier than the reverse). So, on the return leg, I tried the mask once more. The app again told me I'd need one night of treatment before the flight and one night after, although the number of nights can vary depending on how many time zones you need to shift.
Waiting for my 5 p.m. flight at Sydney airport, it felt like bedtime. Soon after takeoff, I was asleep, aligning me much more closely with what was then nighttime in San Francisco.
After the return journey, I felt I recovered much faster than my previous jet-lagged experiences on the trans-Pacific flight. Instead of a whole week of jet lag, it took me only two days to feel completely adjusted. Some of my jet lag symptoms were still there, like nausea, but it felt less acute than on previous trips.
As you use the mask more, you can adjust it. So if you feel like you're not recovering as fast as predicted, add another night of light therapy through the app.
Too good to be true?
LumosTech is aiming to start selling the mask early in 2019 and you can preorder it now for US$229. But frequent flyers beware: Burns says that light therapy won't work for some people, especially those who are sensitive to light. If you get headaches and your eyes water in bright sunlight or you need to wear sunglasses frequently, the Lumos is probably not for you.
Avidan also urges caution and warns of potential risks if people use light exposure incorrectly, as artificial light exposure in shift workers has been linked to a number of health conditions.
"It tells us when we chronically expose ourselves to quantities of light at the wrong time of the day, there are medical consequences," he says.
As for me, I'm excited to use the mask again during my next visit home. Placebo or not, I felt better, without the price of a business class ticket.
This story appears in the Fall 2018 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.
The video in this article is an episode of Beta Test, the show that puts you in the front seat with me as I test our crazy tech products and experiences. You can also find the series on YouTube and the on CNET. Check back each month for a new show!