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How a Toronto startup is helping Canadian athletes in Pyeongchang cope with jet lag

Special glasses help block out blue light that can hurt sleep.

Amol Rao is founder of Somnitude, a startup making special glasses so athletes can get quality sleep and adjust to major time-zone shifts.

Eduardo Lima / Metro

Amol Rao is founder of Somnitude, a startup making special glasses so athletes can get quality sleep and adjust to major time-zone shifts.

For Canada’s freestyle ski team, a split-second decision in Pyeongchang could have life-altering consequences.

The Olympians need to be at their sharpest to tackle jumps at dizzying heights or descents at lightning speeds, and getting a good night’s sleep is crucial.

That’s why a Toronto-based startup called Somnitude has provided the elite athletes with special glasses that block out blue light before bed. The goal is to help them sleep better and adjust to jet lag in an Olympic village 14 hours ahead of Toronto.

“If they’re going down a hill or a mogul and you misjudge something slightly and your response is a bit delayed, it could really affect the way you perform,” said Amol Rao, a University of Toronto industrial engineering master’s student who founded the company in 2016.

Rao's startup looks at "circadian dysfunction" and disrupted sleep cycles. It also offers an app that helps travellers adjust to different time zones by providing information on how to shift sleep patterns before and after arriving at a destination.

The glasses, which should be worn a couple of hours before going to sleep, block out 99 per cent of blue light, Rao explained. That's the kind of light that comes from laptops and cellphones, delaying and suppressing a hormone called melatonin.

The light can create a “negative feedback loop," he said, just as you’re trying to unwind by scrolling through social media or watching a TV show on your laptop.

Rao will track the impact of the glasses on the team’s sleep for six months after they return home. He hopes the specs can be used by other athletes as well as business travellers who need to be alert as soon as they step off the plane.

The importance of sleep is just starting to be appreciated more by athletes, said Amy Bender, a sleep scientist at the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance, based out of Calgary. Some teams are even hiring sleep specialists.

“They’re looking for any type of advantage they can get,” Bender said, adding a healthy adult should get 7-9 hours a night. People who don’t get that are at higher risk for issues like obesity and diabetes.

“Similar to diet and exercise, which have always been preached to the general population, I think sleep is also becoming a pillar of health,” she added.

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