Updated February 18, 2021|5 min read
A couple of months ago, I was having trouble sleeping. I tossed and turned for hours, eventually getting up and starting my day before dawn, figuring I would just go to bed earlier. But the cycle continued. One week, I averaged two to three hours of sleep a night.
I’m not alone. Sleep has been a problem for many Americans: 35% say they get less than the recommended amount of sleep per night, and a third have experienced brief stretches of insomnia. America’s sleep has only gotten worse during the COVID-19 outbreak. A September survey conducted by researchers from Baylor University found 25% of Americans reported worsened sleep quality due to COVID-19-related stress. There’s even a name for this problem: “coronasomnia.”
It’s bad enough that sleep can make you less healthy and worse at your job. But there’s also a multi-billion-dollar industry trying to separate you from your money with uncertain promises to help.
In the past, if you weren’t sleeping well, your options were limited to sleep aids, which included prescription drugs and over-the-counter pills like melatonin, a supplement that helps regulate your body’s circadian rhythm.
Now, a simple Google search yields hundreds of products all designed to help you fall and stay asleep. There are customizable mattresses that have adjustable firmness, support and even temperature. There are 25-pound blankets meant to make you less anxious at bedtime. There are wearable sleep trackers that tell you exactly when to go to bed. You can even have Harry Styles lull you to sleep with a bedtime story, via an app.
“Self care and wellness has been a huge movement in the past 20 years,” said Mark Wynohradnyk, the former brand director at Gravity Blankets, a sleep technology company. “In the early 2000s, everything was about diet trends. The late 2000s were focusing on fitness. We believe sleep and meditation is next.”
Paying for sleep has only grown during the pandemic in COVID-19. Melatonin sales grew almost 43% since last year, according to Nielsen. Mattress sales are up 30%. And the sleep industry overall is on track to hit more than $100 billion in revenue by 2023. It appears stressed and exhausted Americans are willing to shell out for sleep, even when it isn’t cheap — for example, Gravity’s blanket starts at a cool $189.
But can you actually buy your way into good quality slumber?
“A lot of these devices, apps, supplements ... there’s a lot of promise based in theory, not data unfortunately.” Zeitzer said. “Do they have any idea how to manipulate sleep in a meaningful way? No. That's the problem. For example, a lot of these products try to make five hours of sleep feel like eight, but as far as we know, nothing replaces sleep time.”
The Federal Drug Administration doesn’t heavily regulate over-the-counter sleep aids like melatonin. There’s also scant evidence that proves the effectiveness of products like weighted blankets, said Zeitzer. So for the most part, there’s currently no way to know if the product you’re using is actually promoting healthy sleep, he said. What’s more, tracking and obsessing over the amount of sleep you get can actually have a reverse effect, increasing anxiety and worsening sleep.
When you think of wellness, you may think of diet or exercise. But sleep is equally, if not more, important, said Soda Kuczkowski, a sleep health educator at Start With Sleep, a wellness center in Buffalo, New York.
Consistently struggling to fall asleep or experiencing poor quality sleep can cause significant, long-term health issues like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Poor sleep can also be linked to mental health issues like depression and anxiety. These chronic health issues often lead to increased health care spending over time, and can affect things like life insurance costs.
Sleeplessness is also responsible for an estimated $63 billion in lost productivity every year in the United States, according to a study. Sleep deprivation in the U.S. accounts for more than 1.2 million lost work days annually, as employees skip out on work (or underperform) due to exhaustion.
“Sleep is now considered the third pillar of wellness to go along with diet and exercise,” said Bill Fish, sleep science coach at the Sleep Foundation. “If you aren’t getting the recommended seven to nine hours of quality sleep, your productivity is going to suffer. If you aren’t your best at work, it will directly impact your job functions and thus your finances.”
Inadequate sleep can affect your ability to make sound decisions and concentrate. Some studies have found that those who don’t get enough sleep are prone to unethical behavior. Poor performance can affect future raises and promotions, or even lead to dismissal — all outcomes that affect your wallet.
What’s more, COVID-19 has blurred the line between work and rest, disrupting our circadian rhythms, said Jamie Zeitzer, associate professor of behavioral science and sleep medicine at Stanford University. More time at home may mean less exercise or less exposure to natural light, both things than can lead to poor sleep. Also, distressing news and reduced in-person contact with family and friends can cause increased stress and mental health problems, both of which can lead to sleeplessness.
Achieving better sleep costs nothing, if you are willing to put in the work, said Fish. He outlines a few tips:
Turn your bedroom into a “sleep sanctuary.” Keep it clear of clutter and distractions. If possible, make your at-home office outside of your bedroom to physically separate sleeping and working.
Keep your room cool & dark. This will help your body fall and stay asleep quicker.
Limit screen time. Keep your phone in another room and invest in a separate alarm clock to keep you from sitting on your phone late at night.
“It’s really about prioritizing your sleep in a way you haven’t before,” Kuczkowski said. “Instead of focusing on a magic number, focus on how you feel, both going to sleep and waking up. Sleep shouldn’t be a source of stress. It should really be this reset that helps you achieve your goals.”
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