Light Therapy Meets the Smart Sleep Mask

As people age, their body clocks can get off kilter and do not respond to normal sleep patterns. Sleeping at the appointed times, especially when traveling through time zones, becomes difficult. This could lead to bouts of insomnia and daytime restlessness. Enter bright light therapy treatment.

Light therapy is a long-standing treatment that has been used to fix broken circadian rhythms and depression. Traditionally, users get in front of a fluorescent light box, which mimics outdoor light, for up to two hours daily. Enthusiasts of light therapy report sleep and mood benefits. We will examine some of the claims made for light treatment and look at several new smart mask products available to troubled sleepers.

Benefits of Light Therapy Boxes

Winter depression is a common complaint for those who live in northern latitudes, where sunlight is reduced for long stretches. Common symptoms of SAD (seasonal affective disorder) include lethargy, overeating, food cravings, and depression. Women are more affected than men. Through the eyes’ responsiveness to light, SAD and winter depression might be connected to circadian rhythms and the functioning of chemical messengers like serotonin.

Doctors say bright light stimulates the cells in the retina that connect to the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls circadian rhythms. By activating the hypothalamus at certain times of the day, we can restore critical rhythms and reduce seasonal symptoms.

The standard procedure for using light therapy boxes consists of:

  • Exposure to at least 10,000 lux of light
  • Limit the UV portion of light
  • Use for 20-30 minutes upon waking in the morning
  • Keep a distance of 16 to 24 inches from the face
  • Keep your eyes open but do not look directly at the light

The light box should be chosen in consultation with your doctor as different boxes emit different light intensities. You don’t need a prescription, but most insurance plans will not cover the cost of light therapy. A top pick among users is the affordable Carex Day-Light Classic Plus Lamp, which is 99.3% UV free.

So do light boxes actually work? There are few large-scale studies. While considered safe, light therapy has not been shown conclusively to be effective in preventing winter depression.

So do light boxes actually work? There are few large-scale studies. While considered safe, light therapy has not been shown conclusively to be effective in preventing winter depression.

Many severely affected patients end up getting prescribed antidepressants. Still, many users swear by light therapy treatment, and there are few downsides. In 2005, the American Psychiatric Association said that light can serve as a first-line treatment for both seasonal and nonseasonal depression.

Light Therapy for Sleep

Sleep-related circadian rhythm disorders affect millions around the world, especially seniors. Insomnia takes a toll on families and businesses. In advanced sleep phase syndrome (ASPS), for instance, people experience premature sleep onset and early morning awakening. In delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS), disrupted sleepers have trouble getting to sleep before 1 am and struggle to stay awake during the day.

According to the Center for Environmental Therapeutics, these insomnias often involve disrupted circadian rhythms related to unusual body temperature and melatonin secretion by the pineal gland. When given bright light therapy in the morning (to correct DSPS) or in the evening (to correct ASPS), patients report success in resetting their internal clocks to match normal living schedules.

Work continues on making better and more usable light therapy products.  Newer light boxes can vary their intensity, simulating light from near darkness to full afternoon sun. Others use lower intensity blue light, which effects the retina differently than white light.

Researchers at the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine say that a system of quick, flashing light given while asleep could help our bodies adapt to new circadian rhythm schedules and time-zone changes.

Exposing sleepers to just an hour of short bursts of light (or one flash every 10 seconds) may allow our bodies to adjust up to two or three hours forward or backwards in a single day.  Stanford researcher Jamie Zeitzer says our eyes remain sensitive to each new pulse of light, making the treatment more effective than traditional light therapy.

The Best and Brightest Smart Sleep Masks

LumosTech  is commercializing these Stanford concepts by building a “smart sleep mask” with Bluetooth mobile software. Founders claim the Lumos Sleep Mask aligns sleep patterns and helps shift circadian rhythms based on patented Stanford University technology. The jet lag treatment uses short pulses of light that allows the cells in our eyes  time to regenerate in between each flash. Expected in 2018, the Lumos mask will cost an estimated $175.

As a Lumos alternative, the Wall Street Journal cites the bulkier Dreamlight smart sleep mask ($266 with DNA test), which uses infrared lights and sensors to track heart rate and movement.  With its mobile app, you can track the length and quality of your sleep. There’s also a special jet-lag program. For insomniacs, the LED panels send out 15 minutes of orange light that may stimulate melatonin production and a better snooze.

In a first, Dreamlight incorporates family DNA research from 23andMe to come up with a personalized sleep schedule.

In a first, Dreamlight incorporates family DNA research from 23andMe to come up with a personalized sleep schedule. The device includes headphones with built-in speakers for relaxing music and meditation to guide you into dreamland. The company has just begun mass production, so customer service is hard to predict.

The Neuroon Open mask  ($199) can measure multiple biological functions, including brain waves (single-channel EEG), pulse, body temperature, and body movement during sleep. Based on this data, Neuroon will generate a personalized bright light therapy to improve your sleep quality. Features include an “artificial dawn” that uses lights of increasing intensity for a gentle wake up.

While impressed with its technology and comfort, some early users found this high-tech sleep mask to be a bit buggy. As with other smart masks, the Neuroon Open product is barely out of the prototype stage, and buyers may encounter customer service issues.

Finally, there’s the more affordable Sound Oasis Illumy mask ($100).  Sound Oasis says that in nature, our eyes get more blue light in the morning and throughout the day. In the evening, the light is more subdued with a red overtone.

The Illumy mask has built-in therapy lights that pulse at slower delta frequencies at bedtime and faster alpha frequencies in the morning. The company says this is designed to distract you from racing thoughts and “paces you into sleepiness.”

Blue light wakes you more gently in the morning while soft red light helps you fall asleep faster at night. Using tones for programming, the Illumy mask includes an app that will set sunset and sunrise wake up settings. You can expect about 2 weeks of battery life.

Inexpensive sleep masks block out unwanted bedroom light, which might be all that you need to ensure a restful sleep. Guided relaxation and deep breathing are also no-cost sleep inducers. However, more complicated smart masks incorporate the latest research into light therapy and provide novel features and sound to assist insomniacs and global travelers.

In Summary

Biological hacking for better sleep through light therapy has shown promise for a generation. Using a fluorescent light box, insomnia and SAD sufferers have found low-cost relief. Researchers are still looking for conclusive scientific evidence, but most doctors see no harm in light therapy as a first step in sleep and mood treatment.

In the last five years, smart sleep masks have reintroduced the promise of light therapy and made it more portable. By incorporating new research about beneficial pulsating light, these products want to tackle insomnia and jet lag as well as provide better bedtime and travel comfort.

Should you buy a smart sleep mask? If you’re an early tech adopter and like the latest sleep gadgets, then go ahead. They appear safe. For mainstream audiences, many of these masks are just coming into mass production and may include inherent software bugs. The companies lack a stable financial history. A $10 sleep mask might be all you need to maintain an optimum circadian rhythm.

If you have your heart set on a smart mask, you may wish to wait a year or two until prices come down and better evidence for their effectiveness becomes available. For now, the Sound Oasis Illumy mask is an affordable option in this exciting new market segment.


Photo credit: Dreamlight