A good night’s sleep is priceless — right?
That mentality could explain why people happily buy $99 Fitbits, $189 weighted blankets, $499 AI-enabled tracking headbands, or even a $2,295 full-size “smart” mattress that not only tracks your Zzs but adjusts its temperature to promote better resting habits. Then there are gadgets like Casper’s Glow, a $129 light that helps you “wind down naturally”; Somnox, a robot who, for $599, “breathes” in sync with you to lull you to sleep; and free tracking apps like Slumber and Sleep Cycle.
More than a third of Americans aren’t getting the seven or more hours of sleep recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and 30-35% of Americans suffer from insomnia, so there’s big business in helping people catch that elusive shuteye. The sleeping aids market, which includes mattresses and pillows, wearable monitors and sensors, medications, and other devices, generated $69.5 billion in revenue in 2017 and shows no signs of rest; it’s predicted to reach $101.9 billion by 2023. Casper, the mattress company behind Glow, has positioned itself as a “pioneer of the sleep economy” and, though it had a valuation as high as $1.1 billion about a year ago, was valued at a not-too-shabby $575 million when shares opened for trading in early February.
It’s not just about making a buck (or $70 billion of them) — the number of sleep studies quadrupled between 2001 and 2009, as more people sought medical answers for disruptive issues like sleep apnea. And as science links more and more benefits — weight management, improved concentration and productivity, better athletic performance, reduced risk of heart disease and stroke, better immune function, lower levels of depression — to a good night’s rest, the attitude has shifted from “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” to using sleep as a way to optimize performance or develop an “edge” in nearly every aspect of life, says Kelly Baron, Ph.D., director of the University of Utah’s behavioral sleep medicine program.
That, coupled with the notion that you can manipulate sleep environments semi-easily, has allowed the sleep-tech business to flourish, adds W. Christopher Winter, M.D., the president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and the author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It.
But there’s one problem — there’s little proof any of this stuff actually works.
“The model you often see is that there is science that proves X, but that doesn’t necessarily apply to Y,” says Winter, when it comes to the savvy marketing of these devices. Take blue light: Multiple studies have shown it suppresses melatonin, which the body needs to prepare for sleep and regulate its circadian rhythm (aka your internal clock), says Winter. If a company then develops a light bulb that produces a little less blue light and claims said light bulb will make you sleep better, that’s an extrapolation of the research.
“Most of these devices don’t have fully independent clinical trials or transparent published data to back them up,” says Baron. That means you, the consumer, have to be wary of language like “have a better night of sleep starting from the first night” or “fixes your underlying sleep problem.”
“Those claims are unlikely to be true because most of these devices are not FDA-approved,” adds Baron.
As a society, though, we look for quick fixes. “People spend bazillions of dollars on some magic pill or whatever weird diet instead of just recognizing that maybe you need to eat better and less and move more — and it’s the same with sleep tech,” says Seema Khosla, M.D., the medical director of the North Dakota Center for Sleep and chair of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine Technology Committee. (Case in point: One study analyzed 35 of the most popular phone sleep apps and found that, while they do help people prioritize sleep goals and manage habits, few actually help with chronic sleep deprivation and magically whisk you into dreamland.)
Another problem: The internet makes it hard to avoid misinformation. People still make assumptions about sleep that can be harmful to their health — like the idea you can get by on five hours of rest, or that having a drink before bed won’t affect you, or that snoring is harmless, according to a recent study published in the journal Sleep Health. The researchers found these myths to be pervasive, covering thousands of websites, despite many studies proving otherwise.
Whether it’s a tracker that you wear or slip under your mattress, an ambient light you set for specific times, or a robot to fall asleep to, technology can’t foster restful nights if you aren’t practicing good sleep hygiene — establishing a regular bedtime, avoiding stimulants like caffeine and disruptive foods before bed, and working out during the day to get more (and more out of) your Zzs.
“Patients come in all the time and say, ‘I’ve been sleeping terribly for the past few years, I got this Fitbit, and I’m still not sleeping well.’ Well, what did you think would happen?” says Winter. “It’s not a stent for your heart — it’s just a device to give you information. You have got to interpret that information and figure out how best to utilize it.”
Take the person who regularly checks their sleep data as soon as they get up, and they notice they’re rising more often during the night or getting less rest. If they take that info to a doctor and diagnose an underlying issue, that’s a good thing. “Sometimes the value in these products is just that someone becomes more engaged in their sleep habits,” Khosla says — nothing more.
Winter says a placebo effect also could be at play and that using these kinds of devices can influence behavior. “A lot of things you do for your sleep are about ritual and comfort,” adds Baron. Meaning: If a gravity blanket makes you feel more relaxed and comfortable when you head to bed — and if you can afford it — go ahead and cocoon yourself in weighted bliss.
Whatever technology you buy into, create an effective sleep environment. “We go 90 miles an hour all day, and then expect to just turn off the lights and go to bed — and that’s not at all how we are physiologically geared to fall asleep,” says Khosla. Low-tech tools like a comfortable mattress, an eye mask to block light, and a table fan to drown out noise will encourage a good night’s rest if you’re also practicing good sleep hygiene — no fancy robot necessary.