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From posh blankets to aural apps: the firms cashing in on the demand for sleep aids

Ellie Violet Bramley
·3-min read

There are breathing robots versed in “thousands of years of Buddhist breathing techniques” that claim to soothe you to sleep. Then there are weighted blankets that press around 10% of your body weight down as you snooze.

And there are apps, such as supermodel Natalia Vodianova’s Loóna, designed to create a “sleepscape” by combining visual and aural storytelling with relaxation-based activities such as colouring in. These are just some of the products at the heart of the “sleep aid revolution”.

Sleep occupies almost as much of the national conversation as weather – how much, when, how deep it is – and we are more than prepared to put our money where our mouths are in our quest to get more, and better, shut-eye.

In the past 12 months, sales of sleep-related products have soared. At John Lewis, silk pillowcase sales have increased by 533%. At weighted blankets company Mela, sales are up by 250%, while at Holland & Barrett sales of products in the sleep and relaxation category have grown by over 30% year-on-year. “Sleep” is the third most common unique search term for visitors to Neal’s Yard Remedies’ site.

The obsession with sleep looks set to continue: by 2030 the global sleeping aids market, worth $79bn in 2019, is forecast to reach $163bn, according to a study by the market research company P&S Intelligence.

During the pandemic, financial worries, ruptured routines and more sedentary lifestyles have all played a role in disturbing our sleep.

An August 2020 study from the University of Southampton showed the number of people experiencing insomnia rose from one in six to one in four during the pandemic, and identified “women with young children, key workers and people of BAME heritage” as the worst hit. Experts have even coined the term “coronasomnia”.

“With the massive increase in threats to our health, socio-economic situation and general wellbeing, it would be bizarre if anyone could have a peaceful night’s sleep,” says Darian Leader, author of Why Can’t We Sleep?

This, he says, is where the “sleep-aid industry steps in, with claims that we’re not sleeping because it’s time for a new mattress, and offering us products to enable sleep.” What we are seeing, he says “is a depoliticising of sleep – ignore the socio-economic burdens and internal pain that people face and see lack of sleep as a separate problem with a separate solution”.

Natalia Vodianova has created a sleep app.
Model Natalia Vodianova is behind the sleep app Loóna. Photograph: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

The growing interest isn’t limited to those suffering from diagnosable sleep issues – sleep has become a pillar of the wellness market and tracking it has become another symptom of the rise of the quantified self, a movement that sees people tracking their every step.

The fixation on sleep predates the pandemic – the commercialisation of sleep gathered momentum, according to Leader, in the late 19th century.

“Sleep was something that one either had or didn’t have, like other commodities, and money could be spent trying to get it.”

Sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley distrusts the market: “It is a cynical ploy to scare everybody because nobody’s going to make any money if you just go around saying ‘it’s common sense, you know how to sleep’.”

While there is evidence linking lack of sleep to ill health from dementia to cardiovascular disease, Stanley believes that “certain sectors of the sleep world have decided to scare the bejesus out of people by saying if you get a poor night’s sleep you’ll go mad or die”.

While rebutting any scientific evidence for many of the products, he concedes that anything – a silk pillowcase, camomile tea, yoga or listening to Pink Floyd really loudly – could, in theory, help.

“One man’s relaxation is another man’s torture. Whatever it is if it helps you sleep then it helps you sleep,” he explains.

But, he says, many are overlooking the simple things.

“You need three things for a good night’s sleep: a bedroom that’s comfortable, a relaxed body and a quiet mind … you need to make space in your life for sleep.”