How a basic need became a multibillion-dollar industry: 'A good night’s sleep is priceless'

overlooking of asian woman sleep well with smile at night
"Society has realized that sleep is just as important as diet and exercise," Helen Rogers, vice president of marketing and communications at the Better Sleep Council, tells Yahoo Life.

From $150,000 mattresses and high-end bedding to $300 sleep tracking rings and premium pillows, sleep has gone luxury — and some people are willing to pay a pretty penny in the quest for a better night’s sleep.

With a third of U.S. adults reporting that they aren't getting enough shut-eye, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it's no wonder that the sleep-health market is a booming multibillion-dollar industry. According to a 2017 McKinsey & Company report, the sleep industry is estimated to be worth up to $40 billion — including an $8 billion dollar mattress market — and has “historically grown by more than 8 percent per year, with few signs of slowing down.”

Our culture's focus on wellness — which includes eating healthfully, exercising and self-care — has now fully brought sleep into the fold. Or as the Guardian put it: "Sleep has been given that most modern of makeovers — it has been Goop-ified, given the clean-sleeping treatment, with Gwyneth Paltrow evangelizing about making sleep a priority and her 10-hour-a-night ideal." And thanks to Arianna Huffington, even cell phones now have their own beds to "sleep" in at night so people aren’t tempted to scroll until the wee hours.

'The trend now is to brag about the quality of sleep'

However, it wasn't that long ago that operating on little sleep was almost considered a badge of honor, with successful CEOs and celebrities — including Martha Stewart, Jay Leno, Kelly Ripa, and former Pepsi Co's CEO Indra Nooyi — sharing how productive they were despite sleeping as little as four or five hours a night.

"Even just a few years ago, people would brag about how little they slept and how successful they were," Mary Helen Rogers, vice president of marketing and communications at the Better Sleep Council (BSC), which is sponsored by the International Sleep Products Association, tells Yahoo Life. "When in reality, they were over-stressed and over-tired. Finally, society has realized that sleep is just as important as diet and exercise."

Sleep expert Michael J. Breus, also known as The Sleep Doctor, tells Yahoo Life that we used to equate "being tough" with lack of sleep. "Quite honestly the opposite is what happens, the less sleep we get the weaker we become — both physically and mentally. The shift away from this idea of 'being tough' and to more of a health, performance and longevity focus seems to have come with the publication of newer sleep research, the media's ability to expose this research, the general trend toward wellness and recognition of the companies who are spending the time and energy in developing products for wellness. Once the pandemic hit, this idea was accelerated since sleep is so critical to immune function."

Rogers notes that in a 2020 study, the Better Sleep Council found that "consumers believe sleep is the most important factor for health and well-being," adding: "We conducted this same survey in 2016 and since then, we have seen an increase in the level of satisfaction people have with their sleep. This tells us that they are taking it more seriously and making sleep a priority."

Dr. Rafael Pelayo, a sleep specialist at the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center and author of How to Sleep, agrees, telling Yahoo Life: "The trend now is to brag about the quality of sleep." Pelayo adds: "The culture has changed. I think people now understand sleep as something to enhance your performance."

The pandemic and sleep

However, with anxiety levels running high during the pandemic and many stressed out from having to juggle jobs while helping children with remote learning, quality sleep can be harder to come by.

Dr. Philip Alapat, an assistant professor of sleep medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life, "I think the coronavirus pandemic has added another wrinkle in this," particularly for people who are more prone to having anxiety, which can impact their sleep quality. Some people may find themselves "doomscrolling," says Alapat, "staring at your screen and worrying about what the pandemic is going to do and what the new worry is going to be."

The pandemic has left some feeling that getting a good night's sleep is a luxury right now. But Pelayo says that sleep shouldn’t be viewed as a "luxury." "Sleep is a basic biological necessity," he says. "It's like asking why is oxygen a necessity? Without sleep, we die. It's a basic need. It's not a luxury. What is a luxury is having a safe and comfortable place to sleep."

How to get a better night's sleep

For some, creating a sleep sanctuary means splurging on expensive sleep products. "I think most people are realizing that the value of a good night's sleep is priceless,” says Breus, who collaborates with the high-end mattress company, Hastens, whose most expensive bed costs $400,000 and currently has a waitlist. Breus purchased his own Hastens bed for $30,000 and tells Yahoo Life: "I feel like it was one of the best investments in my health I could make."

However, many people can't afford luxury sleep products. But experts say you can still sleep comfortably without them. Rogers equates it to buying a brand new car. "You get a great car that looks good, drives well and has good safety ratings — you can buy the base model or add 'luxury' items that will drive up the cost [such as] leather interior, sunroof, sport edition, etc.," explains Rogers. "The same goes for a mattress. You can get a quality and supportive mattress within your budget, but you can also go up in price as you add various comfort layers, different fabrics, different types of foam or coils, as well as different accessories [such as an] adjustable base, new pillows, sheets, etc. The trick is to do your homework and know what you like and what your body needs."

Alapat acknowledges that there are "ridiculously expensive mattresses out there — to each their own." But while a comfortable mattress is important, so is practicing the sleep hygiene basics: avoiding alcohol and caffeine a few hours before bedtime and sleeping in a "cold, dark, quiet environment," which Alapat says has "withstood the test of time."

Pelayo, on the other hand, says that meditation and yoga are more effective than practicing good sleep hygiene "because they're all about making you calm," adding: "The key thing to sleeping better is to go to sleep in a state of serenity." Alapat acknowledges that meditation can be effective enough "to improve sleep quality so that you don’t need some of these expensive things." (In fact, research shows that mindfulness meditation helps with insomnia and improves sleep quality.)

Alapat adds that meditation, along with the plethora of calm-inducing apps on the market, is "trying to get you to stop worrying about those things you can’t do much about" before bedtime.

But given that people spend a third of their lives in bed, Rogers says that a good mattress is still "worth the spend" and that “over the average lifetime of your bed, it’s pennies." Rogers adds: "A good night's sleep is the foundation of a happy and healthy lifestyle” — not just a luxurious one.

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