Doctors, nurses or shift workers often suffer from an irregular work schedule. They are more easily irritated, more tired and their normal sleep/wake rhythm is completely disrupted. In order to solve this problem, Toine Schoutens devised special light therapy glasses to support a healthy sleep-wake rhythm. Propeaq. His invention was viewed with skepticism for quite a while at first. But those days are far behind him, as Olympic athletes have been using Propeaq products since 2006 and their number is increasing. Meanwhile, the Tilburg company already supplies its glasses to fourteen countries so that athletes can start their competitions in peak condition and without any jet lag. Schoutens traveled to CES for the second year in a row to promote his glasses.
How did you come up with the idea?
That was over 35 years ago. I worked as a psychiatric nurse and had irregular shifts, often at night. I noticed that I became incredibly grumpy because my day/night rhythm was completely disrupted. Light therapy didn’t exist back then, everyone thought it was quackery. I then made my own research lab, I built a cubicle filled with fluorescent tubes. Then I tested it out with colleagues and patients and discovered that they benefited from it. But from a scientific point of view, it didn’t amount to much at the time.
When did that all change?
“I came into contact with the foundation for research into light and health in Eindhoven. There I researched good lighting in nursing homes and what impact this had on patients and staff. Or research into the sleep/wake rhythm of people who worked shifts. I developed the first products through Philips Lighting, because everything on the market was rather cumbersome and bulky. I wanted something simple that you could take with you anywhere, and that’s how the light therapy glasses came about. The first pair of glasses were still quite big and not very mobile, but these teething problems have now been solved”.
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How does it work?
“The blue light in the glasses suppresses melatonin production. At the same time, this light stimulates the Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR). You wear either red or orange glasses so that you can get a good night’s sleep.”
“Top athletes have to be able to perform at any time of the day. It’s a shame if they suffer from jet lag. They get a half-hour dose of blue light once or twice a day. There are four specific LEDs in the glasses which produce light in a blue wavelength. This blue light causes your melatonin production to be suppressed in the evening so that your rhythm shifts to a later time. For example, this would enable you to get into the rhythm of New York much more quickly. The red or orange glasses make you sleepy, they make sure that melatonin production is not suppressed. It’s the other way around if you go East.”
Why are you doing this?
“Doctors, nurses, but also other people outside the healthcare sector who have irregular work hours, are affected by this. It disturbs your rhythm and can make you quite moody. That happened to me, for instance. I wanted to offer these people a solution so that they can do their work feeling refreshed and fit.”
“Another important client group are top athletes, they travel a lot and have to deliver peak performance at various times of the day. I want to support them with our products so that they are as fit as they can possibly be at the start of a race. Not just with the glasses, as we also have a sleep advice app.”
What was the most frustrating thing about setting up Propeaq?
“The initial phase, I sometimes felt like I was banging my head up against a wall. A lot of people called it quackery and thought it was nonsense. Fortunately, that view has completely changed. Scientific research does actually show how important light is to our biological rhythms.”
What can we expect from you in the coming period?
“We’re currently conducting a study into Parkinson’s disease. Patients have a disrupted sleep-wake rhythm and they take a lot of naps during the day. Three to five times a day, which adds up to a total of two hours. As a result, they sleep badly at night. We let people use blue light glasses in the morning to extend their daylight hours, they are also able to take fewer naps. We know that this has an impact, but a lot of research is still needed in order to get more out of this. We’ve got time for this study over the next 2½ years.”
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