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The $70 billion quest for a good night’s sleep

Rest has become the ultimate luxury.

The $70 billion quest for a good night’s sleep
[Photo: Bearaby]

I’m pinned down to my bed, like a fish caught in a net. I’m trapped under a cozy, chunky knit blanket made by Bearaby, a six-month old startup. The blanket looks light and fluffy, but do not be deceived: It weighs 20 pounds. I have given up trying to wiggle or roll around underneath it, so here I am, just staring blankly at the ceiling. A few minutes later, I’ve dozed off, and I will not wake up for eight and a half hours.

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[Photo: Bearaby]

In the modern world, where people are plagued with sleeplessness, this–the simple experience of falling, and staying, asleep–has become something of a luxury. A third of Americans experience brief stretches of insomnia, and a tenth experience three sleepless nights a week for months on end. This sleeplessness is responsible for an estimated $63 billion in lost productivity every year in the United States.

The good news for the sleep-deprived is that we’re living through a golden age of sleep aids. A decade ago, “sleep aid” was synonymous with sleeping pills, but these days, medication only makes up 65% of the market. The last three years have seen an explosion of other types of products designed to help people to fall asleep more easily and stay asleep longer. Initially, many of these sleep tools were tech gadgets, including sleep trackers, apps, lights, and noisemakers, many of which I tested for a story in 2017. But more recently, the trend has shifted toward low-tech products like weighted blankets, temperature-regulating duvets, and pillows with built-in hoods to block out light and keep the sleeper’s head warm. “I think we’re increasingly coming to understand that technology is partly what is causing us stress and insomnia,” says Kathrin Hamm, Bearaby’s founder. “Consumers seem to be gravitating toward products that take them away from all of this blue light.”

Sleep aids are big money. In 2017, they generated $69.5 billion in revenue worldwide and analysts say the industry is on track to hit $101.9 billion by 2023. And given what we now know about how sleep impacts our quality of life, it is perhaps unsurprising that consumers are willing to shell out a lot of money for these products. Case in point: The Bearaby blanket costs $259. That’s on par with other weighted blankets on the market, including the Gravity Blanket and Coolmax. “People are setting aside a budget for self-care,” says Hamm. “It’s really hard to put a price on getting a good night’s sleep.”

[Photo: Ostrichpillow]

The Anxiety Economy

So what’s driving this boom in sleep aids? After all, insomnia is an age-old problem.

An increasing amount of research suggests that not getting enough sleep (defined by the Centers for Disease Control as seven hours a night) increases our risk of diseases including obesity and diabetes. Sleeplessness also can also trigger mental illnesses, including depression, ADHD, anxiety disorders, and even suicide. Doctors have long suspected that insomnia may be related to the onset of Alzheimer’s, and medical researchers in the U.K. are currently conducting a study to see if there is indeed a link.

Part of the reason today’s consumers are so eager to buy sleep aids is that they appear to be more willing than generations past to acknowledge their own mental health, and take charge of it. “There are brands like Casper and Brooklinen that are creating products for you to sleep on, but there’s this separate market of sleep aids which are really part of the anxiety economy,” says Hamm. “In some ways, the sleep aids industry springs out of the mental health industry, and more consumers are willing to acknowledge that they struggle with psychological issues like stress.”

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Americans are very stressed out. A newly released Gallup poll found that 55% of adults in the United States describe feeling stressed, which is 20% higher than the global average. And since there is a clear link between stress and insomnia, it makes sense that this anxiety is keeping Americans up at night. PS Market Research found that North America dominated the sleep-aids market, contributing 49.3% of total revenue. In its report, the firm made the case that this was because of two factors: “the growing incidence of sleep disorders and rising initiatives by several government and non-government organizations for increasing awareness about sleep disorders and sleep hygiene.”

Consumers seem to have a limitless appetite for trying products that will help them sleep–and startups are taking note.

[Photo: Gravity]

Commercializing “Deep Touch Pressure”

Before launching Bearaby last December, Hamm worked in developing countries as an economist. She had been a good sleeper all her life, but suddenly, she found herself unable to sleep during a sweltering, noisy night in Mumbai, India. This quickly spiraled into a an extended period of insomnia. She spent her days groggy, grumpy, and unproductive. She became increasingly desperate for a solution. “It became clear to me that anxiety is at the root of many of our sleeping problems,” Hamm says. “You have trouble quieting your mind. Then you’re stressed about not sleeping.”

Eventually, she began searching for sleep aids. She discovered that many of the tools on the market are based on mental health research. For decades, scientists have known that experiencing pressure across the body–known in the medical community as “deep touch pressure”–increases happiness hormone serotonin and sleep hormone melatonin, while decreasing the stress hormone cortisol. Weighted blankets, for instance, were first implemented in 1999 to help patients with acute psychological disorders, and have been used over the years to help people with autism and PTSD.

In 2017, Gravity Blankets was among the first brands to try to commercialize these blankets for the everyday consumer. The company made a blanket full of plastic pellets that weighed between 15 and 25 pounds. More than 23,800 backers contributed more than $4.7 million to the project. Now Gravity is a full-fledged company and there are dozens of other brands making similar items including Layla, YnM, and Quility Premium.

Hamm, for her part, tried one of these blankets, and found it instantly effective at sending her to sleep. “When it arrived, I fell asleep for four hours on my couch,” she says. But there were several things she wanted to modify. She found that the blanket trapped heat, which was not great in a tropical city like Mumbai, and she also didn’t like how most weighted blankets on the market were made from synthetic fabrics and plastic pellets, which would just contribute to plastic pollution. She decided to create her own blanket from natural yarns that will biodegrade, like cotton and Tencel (which comes from tree pulp), that would be knit together in thick loops allowing air to pass through it. “There is nothing inside the blanket,” she says. “We simply use so many layers of material that the blanket becomes very heavy.”

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Another startup, Hatch Sleep, developed its own approach to creating deep touch pressure in the form of a sleep swaddle, called the “Sleep Pod,” made from highly stretchy material. As I described a product review I wrote earlier this year, the fabric exerts pressure on your body without weight. Like all of the other weighted blankets, the swaddle is designed to address stress, and sleep will follow. “Many customers don’t use the Sleep Pod just while they’re in bed,” says Matt Mundt, Hatch Sleep’s founder. “They will wear it on the couch after a long day, just to calm down and relax.”

[Photo: Hoodie Pillow]

Controlling Your Sleep Environment

Other brands are experimenting with products that can block out more of your environment–some of which veer toward the wacky. Ostrichpillow, for instance, sells pillows that go over your entire head, blocking out light and sound, so you can catch a nap in any setting (though you’ll certainly look weird wearing it).

And then there’s the Hoodie Pillow, which serves a similar purpose but is designed to better blend into your outfit. Rebecca Rescate, who developed it, remembers turning toward her trusty hoodie when she was struggling to sleep in college. It served many purposes: It kept her warm, if she wore it over her eyes it would block the light, and it was also thick enough to block out some sound. “What we’re learning from sleep science is that all of these factors influences the quality of our sleep,” she says.

[Photo: Hoodie Pillow]
Rescate and her cofounder developed a $30 pillow that has a hood attached to it, so wearers get all the benefits of a hoodie without actually needing to wear one (there’s also a portable version, also $30, for travel). The brand has found several markets for the product: It’s been a hit with travelers and college students, but Rescate says it has also proven to sell well at hospital gift shops, particularly with chemotherapy patients who struggle to sleep because their heads are cold. “Many wear a hat to sleep, but when it comes off as they roll around, they wake up and have to locate it again,” she says. “With the hood attached to the pillow, they don’t have this problem.”

Other brands are addressing atmospheric conditions in the bedroom. People’s body temperatures vary a great deal; while some people wake up because they feel too cold, others seem to feel constantly hot under the covers. Leo Wang, founder of direct to consumer comforter brand Buffy, wanted to address the issue of temperature with his duvets. The company spent months developing a comforter made out of eucalyptus (which costs $210 for a queen size version). Material science research has found that eucalyptus fibers are highly breathable, which means this bedding allows heat from the body can escape while you are sleeping.  “We had heard from plenty of hot sleepers who complained that there weren’t any good options on the market for them,” Wang says. “Unlike polyester or down filling, which traps heat, eucalyptus fabric is designed to be breathable.”

[Photo: Bearaby]

But Who Can Afford to Sleep Well?

Industry analysts at PS Market Research believe we’re only at the start of the sleep-aid boom. The global wellness industry is now worth $4.2 trillion, as consumers around the world invest in products that claim to promote wellness, from fitness classes to better food to sleep aids.

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However, it is worth pointing out that many sleep aids on the market are incredibly expensive–and are out of reach for many people who might really need them. While insomnia affects all people, regardless of social class, the CDC has found that poverty is closely linked to sleeplessness. The organization has found that those who live in less affluent parts of the country–like parts of the South and Appalachia–are far more likely to be sleep-deprived. People who are struggling to make ends meet may take multiple jobs to pay the bills, which cuts down on sleep time. The CDC also found that people who are unable to work, or who are unemployed, also have trouble getting enough sleep. And since untreated sleeplessness leads to other problems, those who are less well off are at an increased risk of many medical conditions, falling sleep while driving, or getting hurt on the job.

The well-off generally sleep more, and if they struggle with insomnia, they can afford to shell out hundreds of dollars on sleep aids. In other words, getting a good night’s sleep has become a luxury, in every sense of the word.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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