Sleep aids: an awakening industry

Products claiming to improve our slumber – from tracking apps to smart mattresses – are suddenly everywhere. Should we be alarmed?
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Products helping us fall asleep have seemingly been around for forever. Ancient Greeks and Egyptians used to extract opium poppy, claiming it had a mildly soporific effect, while the Romans thought lettuce leaves did something similar. Victorians believed in the relaxing properties of lodestones – magnetic iron ores – and placed them under their pillows. Someone somewhere out there probably still uses these treatments today. 

Much more recently, there's been an explosion of devices, gadgets, lamps, apps, earplugs, blankets, trackers and robots that all claim in some way to help us sleep better. We have sleep-inducing gurus, clinics, corporate classes and retreats. 

Sleep-tracking tools have equipped us with a new language to describe the quality of our sleep. Today, many of us know a lot about our REM sleep cycles, the volume of our snoring and the fluctuation in the temperatures of our bedrooms. We've spared no expense for our sleep. Getting enough of it – whatever that means – grants you bragging rights. We're all sleep experts now. No medical diagnosis necessary. 

The sleep-aid industry has never been more awake. Eight Sleep, a ‘sleep fitness’ company based in New York and valued at $500 million, sells a line of smart mattresses priced from $2,695. Sleep on one of them, apparently, and you won't need an alarm any more. The mattress heats up or cools down before bedtime – your body needs different temperatures for optimal sleeping conditions – and wakes you with a gradual temperature change and chest-level vibrations. 

If that sounds a bit worrying to you, then look away now. A new product called Gosleep, manufactured by South Korea-based technology brand NYX, emits a light level of carbon dioxide. The thinking goes that elevated levels of the gas can stimulate the parts of the brain that control your heartbeat and respiration – which, when played around with, can help bring on sleep. Yet the tech evangelists at WIRED magazine have ‘concerns’ about the product. On top of that, it's set to cost around $2,000. 

Elsewhere, Paris-based Moona offers the Pod, which has a heat pump and uses water to regulate your pillow temperature. Eye masks from English brand Spacemasks are self-heating and designed especially for naps on the plane. Fancy drifting off to the tones of Idris Elba, Harry Styles or Kate Winslet? The Calm app signed a deal for more celebrities to narrate its range of bedtime stories for adults. Or switch on the LectroFan for a symphony of white, pink or brown noise (different frequencies of ambient sound). And sleep obsession isn't just for people: smart dog-collar brand Fi has added a sleep-tracking function to its devices, which you can subscribe to for $192 a year. 

According to the Global Sleep Aids report by intelligence firm Market Data Forecast, sleep-aid brands in Europe and the US currently dominate the global sleep industry, last year worth nearly $14.9 billion and $37 billion respectively, and are set to grow to nearly $20.4 billion and $49.3 billion by 2027. Yet demand in Asia-Pacific is predicted to grow even faster over the same period. 

South Korea is one of the most sleep-deprived countries in the world, according to multiple major research bodies, including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Korea Sleep Industry Association. Moving from being one of the world's poorest countries to one of the most technologically advanced in the space of just a few decades has paved the way for a culture of overwork, stress and sleep deprivation – as such, its sleep economy is quickly moving ahead. 

In Seoul, there are entire department stores dedicated to sleep support, with shelves stacked with ideal bed sheets, interactive mood lighting and K-beauty goods guaranteeing rest and relaxation. Buddhist temples even boost footfall by running sleep retreats for tired locals and travelers. 

This is just one small part of the burgeoning global sleep-tourism industry, which includes sleep retreats and sleep-centric hotels like the Hästens Sleep Spa in Coimbra, Portugal. Guests at The Cadogan hotel in Chelsea, London, can enjoy its ‘sleep concierge’ – the service includes a pillow menu, weighted blankets, bedtime teas, scented pillow mists and a sleep-inducing meditation recording.

Eyes wide shut

For thousands of new brands, the secret to a good night's sleep seemingly involves a lot of money. But, as these products increasingly pop up everywhere, doctors are seeing an exponential rise in worried patients, armed with smart-watch data and desperate for sleep-optimization strategies. Being preoccupied with perfecting one's sleep data is now so common that it has a name – orthosomnia. 

‘People often come to me saying they thought they slept well, but their tracker said otherwise,’ says Dr Maja Schaedel, a clinical psychologist at The Good Sleep Clinic in Kent, UK, which offers medical and psychological expertise to people with sleep difficulties. ‘It's a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle.’ 

Skeptical of the accuracy and impact on sleep anxiety, she asks patients with insomnia to stop using trackers as soon as they begin treatment with her (assessment begins at £200 an hour – it's not cheap). 

Maja recommends weighted blankets, especially to those with ADHD. The heft of the fabric prompts the body to increase production of the mood-boosting hormone serotonin, reduce the stress hormone cortisol and increase levels of melatonin, which helps you sleep. Blankets from sleep brands Remy and Hush will harmonize with your interiors, and bedding brands Emma and Brooklinen sell versions from $169. 

For those with delayed sleep phase disorder and circadian rhythm issues – when the body's natural sleep-wake cycle doesn't align with night and day – Maja suggests bright light therapy. Shining a specific type of light at certain times can improve sleep and help with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) as it boosts the production of sleep hormones. 

Lumie has been around for more than 30 years. Starting out as Outside In in Cambridge, UK, the startup created what it claims was the first-ever wake-up light – basically a less aggressive alarm clock – in 1992. ‘It chimed with those who were seeking to live their lives in a healthier way and improve their sleep through natural means,’ says Lumie's CEO Jonathan Cridland. Lumie's range now includes five SAD lights, seven wake-up lights and a night light for kids. The business, which operates across the UK and Europe, has grown sales by 1,000% over the past 20 years and doubled sales over the past five years. 

Big brands aren't sleeping on circadian rhythm lighting, either. The sector is set to grow by almost 20% by 2028, according to Data Bridge Market Research. Mattress brand Casper introduced its first sleep LED light in 2019, which dims to darkness over a 45-minute period to mimic the setting of sun. Its soft glow, like Lumie's sleep lights, aims to help you fall asleep, stay asleep and go back to sleep if woken in the night. In September 2022, Amazon launched Halo Rise, a tabletop sleep sensor and wake-up lamp, while Chinese electronics manufacturer Xiaomi, best known for its line of affordable Android smartphones, will be rolling out its own version soon. 

Lumie's Jonathan isn't too concerned by the competition. ‘It's a reminder we need to stay focused and relevant,’ he says. ‘Our advantage is longstanding specialization and ties to the academic research community.’ Its small, dedicated research and development team design for longevity, durability and pleasure – and still receive service requests for products that are more than 20 years old.

Sleeping on the job

It's hard to evade the sleep-treatment boom. Companies are now waking up to the importance of well-rested employees. Some businesses, like Japanese wedding planner Crazy Inc and Aetna, a health insurance provider, are reportedly even paying their staff to sleep better. 

Elsewhere, companies such as consulting firm Accenture, investment company BlackRock and sports brand New Balance have a sleep-tracking element bundled into their corporate wellbeing packages. Gympass, the world's largest corporate wellbeing platform, has partnered with app Sleep Cycle so that employees can see sleep data, listen to meditations, detect snoring and wake up with the popular smart alarm. Offices are also getting a doze-adjacent glow-up. In Japan, furniture specialist Itoki has created vertical nap boxes, which aim to remedy the effects of overwork. 

Gabrielle de Valmont is co-founder of Nap&Up, a Paris-based brand that offers slickly designed sleep cocoons to be installed in offices, with an accompanying app for booking slots and sleep-inducing audio tracks. Gabrielle says that when Nap&Up started six years ago, sleep in the professional sphere faced huge cultural obstacles: ‘We were speaking to lots of employees who were taking naps in the toilet, in their cars, in secret.’ Sleep deprivation was real. ‘Our mission was two-fold: to install rest areas for staff and raise awareness among employees and management of the benefits of a micro nap.’ 

Today, she says, more companies are advocating for naps during the working day. ‘In France, taking sleep into account is among the top five expectations of employees vis-à-vis their employer,’ he says. ‘Any company wishing to attract and retain talent must offer innovative solutions to make employees feel good in the workplace.’ 

Trickle-down economics 

To gain a stable revenue stream and establish data feedback loops, many sleep brands, including headphones startup Kokoon, smart ring Oura and Eight Sleep, use a subscription model. US brand Happiest Baby says half of its customers rent products rather than buy them outright. Its product SNOO is a smart cot that uses soft white noise and gentle motions to mimic the sensation of being in the womb. ‘Parents feel good that products will go to a new home next, not a trash heap,’ says LA‑based founder and professor of pediatrics Dr Harvey Karp. In future, he hopes to establish a product rental program where costs are covered by insurance companies and other third parties. 

The baby-sleep segment is huge – and the trickle-down effect is real. According to Research and Markets, baby sleep monitors generated $659.6 million in the US in 2021, which is double that of the country's baby and child skincare market revenue ($390 million, according to market research brand Statista). Cradlewise's $2,000 smart crib tech monitors a baby's depth of sleep and automatically rocks them to sleep at the first sign of waking. In December 2021, it raised $7 million in its initial funding, with one investor describing it as ‘a mental-health solution for parents’. 

Sleep – that basic human need – has been repositioned as the ultimate wellness symbol. Statista predicts that the sleep industry will expand from $518 billion in 2022 to $585 billion in 2024. Considering the growing litany of issues that keep people awake at night, finding new ways to make people want to optimize their sleep won't be a struggle for brands. We're yet to reach the age of peak sleep.

Sleep in numbers

• The South Korean sleep industry was worth ₩3 trillion ($2.3 billion) in 2021, growing from ₩480 billion  ($370 million) a decade ago. [Korea Sleep Industry Association 2022]

• In July 2022, on South Korean online marketplace Gmarket, sales of blankets and mattress toppers surged 152% and mood lighting sales rose 48% year on year. [Gmarket]

• Age 40 is when Americans get the least amount of sleep, but it starts creeping upwards again from age 50. [Medical College of Georgia]

• Just one-third of Americans report getting high-quality sleep. [Gallup]

A version of this article was first published in Courier issue 50. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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