This morning, like most mornings, I looked at my phone. The screen read, "26." "Shit," I thought. Only a 26? Then I realized my mistake: I’d forgotten to switch it on until 2:45 a.m.
"It" is Beddit, a device that sits underneath my fitted sheet and tracks my heart rate and movement while I sleep. Each morning, I’m awarded a score — a 100 is perfect, a zero means you did not sleep at all. When I’d gone to bed at 11 p.m., I’d forgotten to switch on Beddit, which sends information to an app via Bluetooth. At 2:45 a.m., I’d woken up, like I usually do, and turned it on — which accounts for this morning’s terrible score.
That mid-REM-cycle wake-up I experience nearly every night is precisely why I’m using Beddit. I’m bad at sleeping. So, the thinking goes, if I better understand my sleep, I should be able to sleep better. Technology has certainly contributed to my terrible sleep pattern, though I don’t think it’s the cause of it. But many 3 a.m. wake-ups are followed by an Instagram rabbit-hole dive or Wikipedia binge. I use Apple’s Night Shift mode. I installed a lavender-scented plug-in next to my bed. There’s no TV in my room. I’m trying.
Before technology started trying to fix sleep, it ruined it. The glowing blue light from your phone tells your brain to wake up, not rest. Watching TV in bed is a mistake. Playing video games before bed can decrease your REM sleep. Your late-night Netflix binges aren’t helping either.
Now, the fixes are coming. New gadgets can tell us what we’re doing wrong. Sleep isn’t just what we do when we’re not doing anything: It’s a market, a massive and trendy economy that’s selling something we can’t live without.
Sleep is a "leveling up" proposition. If you have sleep, you can have better sleep. Or deeper sleep, or sleep with more interesting dreams. You can modify your phone to work in night mode to help you fall asleep, or you can quantify your sleep, Fitbit-style, so that you know everything about your sleep patterns, and make decisions on how best to fix or complement or accessorize how you do it.
And then there are the mattresses. (We’ll get to the mattresses.)
"Sleep has gotten sexier," says Mary Helen Rogers, VP of marketing and communications for the International Sleep Products Association (ISPA), a trade group primarily made up of mattress manufacturers and industry suppliers that also publicizes information on improving sleep. "It used to be a badge of honor to go with just a couple of hours of sleep, but now we know the toll that it’s taking on health. The elevated talk of sleep in the media has gotten into consumers’ minds."
Lack of sleep was once a point of pride. You didn’t sleep much, ergo, you must be working or playing harder than someone who slept more. CEOs and entrepreneurs subscribed to a four-hour sleep system, optimizing their waking hours so their brains were fully conditioned to a mere few hours of rest. At some point, though, this stopped being true: Now, executives have started talking about the need to get eight hours of sleep a night. Perhaps the most visible example is Arianna Huffington, who this year published The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, a book that hopes to spur a cultural change in sleep and wellness. This summer she announced she was stepping down from her role at The Huffington Post to focus on her new "consumer well-being and productivity platform," Thrive Global. What changed?
Before tech got its hands on sleep, there were pharmaceuticals. "People started recognizing that they needed more sleep," says Rogers. "Now, the quick fix is what everyone wants, right? So a few years back the pharma industry had a spike in sleep aids — you couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing a ton of commercials for sleeping pills."
Remember the Lunesta butterfly fluttering around your TV screen? In an email, Huffington told me she thinks sleeping pills are "mostly dangerous" — in her book she recounts "horror stories" about using them.
"The archetypal hypnotics (benzodiazepines, or BZDs) were introduced in the 1960s — and were globally viral by the mid-1970s," says Kevin Morgan, who works in clinical sleep research at Loughborough University. According to Morgan, a new generation of hypnotics ("of so-called nonbenzodiazepines") cropped up in the 1980s. Use in Europe flatlined. In the U.S., it grew. "[Usage] has been airborne ever since," says Morgan.
In an interview with The Debrief, Morgan described the consumption of sleeping pills as an epidemic. "Sleep medicine is like all medicine in the U.S.: it’s another great way to make a living. If you’re a sleep physician then it’s in your interest to tell people how badly they need your business and one way to coax a market is to basically demonize the kind of sleep people are currently getting." In the same interview, Morgan says of the idea that we are suffering from a crisis-level lack of sleep: "It’s a myth. It’s a total myth and yet it’s kind of grown legs and become a kind of mantra."
Rogers disagrees, insisting that the current sleep product landscape is a symptom of that very epidemic, and a realization that pills can fix only so much. "The quick fix [pill] is only temporary and people realized that good sleep really comes when your body is truly comfortable. And the industry started to speak up — sleep matters, and your mattress is the foundation of a good night’s sleep."
While there have been lots of arguments over how much sleep we actually need, consumers continue to invest in the tools of slumber. According to ISPA’s mattress industry statistics, between 2014 and 2015 there were increases in mattress dollar value, units shipped, and average unit price. Research also has found that millennials are increasingly buying mattresses online — in part thanks to savvy marketing — and they are doing so quicker, taking shorter periods of time to research the significant purchase.
"[A mattress] is as individual to a person as a fingerprint, and manufacturers are talking louder about the importance of finding a mattress that’s right for you," says Rogers. Consumers are obsessed with customization, and sleep is no exception — sleep isn’t just sleep; it’s your sleep, and it should be personalized to you. And this has most visibly manifested itself in the booming on-demand mattress market, which is expected to grow and already bursting at the seams. There’s Casper, Leesa, Tuft & Needle, Helix Sleep, Saatva, Airweave (former Ryan Lochte sponsor), Loom & Leaf, and Bedaga, among others. The appeal of these services is obvious. Buying a mattress is expensive, getting it delivered a hassle, and the purchase point a confusing one, especially for first-time buyers. The ease of booting up your smartphone and accomplishing such a boring, adult purchase — complete with a customization quiz, no less — is far more appealing than the alternative.
"The mattress industry was overdue for disruption and the direct-to-consumer e-commerce wave is just starting to crescendo," says Matt Hayes, head of marketing at Leesa. He also attributes some of the success of the bed-in-a-box mattress market to a younger, web-savvy user base.
In a recent episode of the Freakonomics podcast, Casper VP of communications Lindsay Kaplan explained the changes in the mattress market: "Mattresses are gross, nobody likes their mattress brand, nobody likes the experience, so how do you actually flip that and make something that people love? People love talking about their beds now." Saatva chief marketing officer Ricky Joshi echoed this idea, that a very simple part of all of this is that mattresses were a boring, necessary purchase. There were no bragging rights or interesting stories about them, and now brands have created fandom around a formerly dull product. "No one used to know what mattress they slept on. Outside of Tempur-Pedic, there was no brand loyalty. Now people love to tell you the name of their mattress," he says. (He also noted that you hear so many on-demand mattress ads on podcasts because they have very loyal, captive audiences, and such a big purchase benefits from listener-host trust.)
Casper might not be considered a "technology" company, but it’s certainly a Silicon Valley darling that plants itself firmly in the on-demand economy. Casper advertises on Facebook and in podcast ads — not to mention its cute website, which allows consumers to speak to no one yet still have the company’s product appear on their porch in a box, only for the mattress to magically unroll itself and fluff up — making it feel like a high-tech solution to your boring old, low-tech mattress that a truck or kindly friend with a pickup had to deliver.
(It deserves to be mentioned how squarely this model fits into the shut-in economy. Use Postmates to deliver your dinner, TaskRabbit to run your errands, and Casper to bring you a mattress. It is sort of perfect that the shut-in economy is making it cool and easier to get the ultimate accessory of a true shut-in: a bed. You don’t have to leave the house to get the thing that will make you never want to leave the house! It’s a beautiful cycle of aloneness.)
"A lot of savvy millennials are coming into the market and realizing the importance of sleep to their productivity and overall well-being. Coupled with a desire for a connection to brands with meaning, it’s not hard to see why brands like Leesa have been successful," says Hayes. He adds that while Leesa’s consumer demo began with millennials, it’s growing now to include a wider range of age groups. But marketing to younger buyers is smart: you build brand allegiance to a product they are likely to buy again, possibly for a future family.
"There’s definitely been a mattress revolution over the last five years," says Saatva’s Joshi. "Over the last year and a half, it’s gone crazy." As the stories about the mattress boom go, this revolution is largely a reaction to the antiquated, old-school setup. "Historically, it was a group of companies that weren’t really catering to the modern customer," he says. "They were almost manipulating customers, talking down to them, tricking them. You had this very old, old industry that wasn’t necessary exciting."
The way it used to work, as Joshi explains it, was that a buyer would see an advertisement for an affordable mattress and then walk into the store. They would sit on that mattress, and it would suck. Eventually, after shrewd salesmanship and various in-store mattress tests, the customer would end up with a much more expensive unit. "They are trying to get you to pay as much as possible. It’s that used-car-salesman crap, and we’re disrupting it."
It’s not just because of marked-up mattress stores, though. The convenience of staying in and speaking to no one — a.k.a. the internet — is a powerful lure. "Part of it is we’re in the era of vertically integrated commerce," says Joshi. "Whether it’s buying your glasses from Warby Parker or your razors from Dollar Shave Club. The mattress was the next thing." Most of these next-gen mattress companies, Saatva included, are highly invested in advertising on Facebook and social media in general. "The greatest thing about Facebook is on our own Facebook page, we can wait for the customers to comment and answer other people’s questions," he says. "We have such strong brand advocates on social media, they literally should be on payroll. I mean, obviously not, but they might as well be, they just love us."
Could brick-and-mortar mattress stores go the way of Blockbuster Video? Rogers doesn’t think so. "I think it’s just one other option for consumers," she says of the online mattress ordering boom. "There are people who will always buy things online versus people who will always want to go into the stores." But she does admit that the internet option is becoming popular for a reason. "Everything we do these days is online — researching, educating, shopping. So it’s not surprising." In fact, ISPA has taken some cues from this web transition to buying mattresses and created an online quiz you can take to assess your needs. Rogers says you can use this to buy your mattress online — or even buy it in a store.
Are we so obsessed with fixing sleep with technology because technology interrupted our sleep? Do we want to get better sleep in order to work more, work harder, work better? According to University of Michigan researcher Jan Van den Bulck, there are three kinds of sleepers. "Many of us enjoy sleeping — that’s why it is sometimes so hard to get out of bed," he says. "[Then there is the second group], a surprisingly large number of people who really struggle with sleep. And yet it takes up about a third of every day, so there are plenty of reasons to want more control. Some [will finally] get more sleep, others might hope to sleep better and therefore less, so there is more time for all the other things we would like to fill our days with."
I fit into this second group. I am not consumed by my sleep problems, but I certainly struggle with them. Thanks to my recent Beddit usage, I do know a few more things about my sleep — or rather, I’ve confirmed what I already knew: I fall asleep fast and easily. I get around five hours a night. I don’t snore. My heart rate stays in the 60s. While I didn’t have these details before using Beddit, I generally knew this. I pass out the second I hit the pillow, but I can’t stay asleep. The information provided by Beddit doesn’t tell me what I could do to fix my sleep issues, though maybe bringing them to a doctor could. I probably won’t do that, because I generally don’t go to doctors for anything that doesn’t visibly manifest itself. Some people do. Those who are quickest to make that appointment sound like they’d fit into Van den Bulck’s third group.
That third group consists of people who obsess over sleep and monitor it for any and all problems. Van den Bulck calls this unhealthy obsession with sleep "chronorexia."
In a paper titled "Sleep apps and the quantified self: blessing or curse?," Van den Bulck addressed some of the challenges associated with sleep analysis wearables. "If people are going to use apps and devices to assess their sleep, they need to know whether these devices have the sensitivity and specificity required to arrive at acceptable conclusions (be they comforting or alarming)," Van den Bulck writes.
The fact that the technology companies that create sleep-tracking devices use proprietary algorithms is also troubling. "A problem researchers and other analysts are faced with is that the algorithms used by the software are usually undisclosed, making it nearly impossible to examine and judge how these algorithms treat the data and arrive at conclusions," writes Van den Bulck in his paper. "We need to know which type of personality is drawn towards [sleep apps and wearable devices], what their motives are, and whether and how such devices change their sleep behavior and their (perceptions of) sleep quality. Many apps and devices avoid being labeled as a medical device, as this would entail undergoing the rigors of approval by government agencies." Van den Bulck also says that the results these wearables produce will lead consumers to go to doctors looking for answers to their sleep issues.
Michael Breus, who’s been dubbed the Sleep Doctor and is on the clinical advisory board for The Dr. Oz Show, is an advocate of quantified self products. Even so, he admits that the sleep tech boom has its ill effects. "There’s a lot of bad data out there and that’s a problem. Look, it’s great that people have an interest and that people are becoming aware, but we have a problem on our hands," he says. "There’s no standard."
He’s right: How does a score of "86" given to me by one tracker compare to a smiley face from another? If your Fitbit tells tells you that you ran 10 miles, with an average time of 8:24 per mile, you know what that means; if you burn 700 calories on a stair stepper, you know what that means. Breus says it’s an issue the field wants to sort out. "The National Sleep Foundation wants to create a standard by which everything can be measured. Every company has a different metric, and that becomes a problem to the consumer. You get consumer confusion."
This all boils down to the core issue with quantified self — that over-data-fying our lives causes us to obsess over a problem, one that supposedly can be fixed by a product we purchase.
"We seem to be very good at finding new things to worry about," Van den Bulck told me via email. "To an extent, this is good, [like making] people aware of conditions such as sleep apnea has the potential to change a lot of lives for the better." He mentioned that the benefits extend beyond just the person with the sleep disorder, to the partner they share a bed with. "At the same time … people who never worried about sleep are now at risk of overanalyzing it … If you start worrying about sleep, you are very likely to start sleeping worse."
The idea that a fix for seemingly any problem is instantly available in the on-demand age can make it easy to obsess over new things, but why has that translated to sleep? Saatva’s Joshi says it certainly has a lot to do with our focus on fixing ourselves. "You have health and wellness and body optimization and nootropics … people want to live an optimized life," he says. "You can go to the gym all you want and take all the nootropics you want, but if you don’t sleep well, then it’s not going to work."
Part of the inclination to improve sleep is about getting more rest in order to work harder, to be a more perfect person. But it’s also trendy. "It’s become an obsession over the last five years," says Breus. "Sleep is a performance activity. It’s a lot like running. So I can go for a run in my flip-flops and T-shirt and a boombox on my shoulder, but my time won’t be very good. But if I got my Asics and my Dri-Fit gear and Bluetooth headphones, I can run better. A mattress is like that — it’s equipment for sleep."
There’s a lot of money spent on perfecting your sleep, which means there’s a lot of money to be made. If a market presents itself as viable, it will be manipulated and exploited. Plenty of companies are pushing the boundaries of the sleep business. In 2007, a company called Yelo opened lounges in New York where people could buy time in a nap pod. (You can still do this — 30 minutes costs $30.) Dreampad sends vibrations through your pillow to keep you relaxed. Zeeq aims to stop you from snoring. There’s a mattress specifically for improved cuddling.
There are also sleep products that do more than just monitor. Thync is a $200 device that attaches to the head and neck and, via a smartphone remote-control system, sends gentle-to-not-so-gentle vibrations to your brain in order to stimulate or relax you. I tried it a few years ago — I’m still not sure if I felt invigorated by the jolts, or because of a placebo effect, or maybe by the four-day Vegas work trip.
Dreem is a helmetlike device that measures brain activity and then uses short bursts of sounds at specific moments during the night to change your brain activity and induce deep sleep. "Activity trackers are a good thing. They make you aware of your health, but with sleep it’s actually not working," says Rythm (the company that makes Dreem) CEO Hugo Mercier.
These products are actively trying to improve your sleep, not just tell you about it. Whether they work is the subject of much debate; simply put: "It’s tough to measure brain activity without attaching a bunch of electrodes to your brain," says Breus.
Despite all of the new experimentation, the best sleep aid might still be good old common sense. "A lot of the advice about getting better sleep are things we’ve always been told," says Beddit CEO Dean Tucker. "Go to bed at the same time, don’t drink a lot, drink water, you know, things your mom told you." While Beddit is in the business of sleep technology, he notes that some of the advice and pitches out there aren’t necessarily helping. Eliminating all technology from the bedroom is difficult, he says (I would say nearly impossible — my phone is my alarm and I dare you to pry it from my nightstand), and any products that claim to monitor REM are frankly not able to do so.
So why the compulsion to keep buying? Quantified sleep is projected to be the next huge wave in personal health monitoring. As Tucker puts it: "If you’ve not been able to sleep, you know you’ll do anything."
Not everyone can afford to try anything, though. Sleep technology is prohibitively expensive. According to a 2015 survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, people who use sleep tech live in larger households, get between six and eight hours of sleep a night, and are actively trying to manage and improve their health. "Like most technology purchases, price and comfort are the biggest barriers to adoption for Non-Users, followed by a lack of need," the study says.
Another study published in 2015 looked at another element of sleep and wealth disparity. Over 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a national health survey to find whether there is a correlation between income and sleep. It found that more people living around or below the poverty level got less than six hours of sleep versus those making more money.
Being able to invest time and money into health has always been more difficult for people in lower income brackets, especially for those below the poverty line. Now, as the sleep market becomes trendier and a focus of "disruption" for Silicon Valley, the gap will certainly widen, as fewer demographics are able to afford the latest in sleep tech. But even if you don’t buy into everything about sleep technology, there’s interest in testing those waters. Of course, that alone is a luxury not everyone enjoys.