Home / Science / Health /  There’s a gold rush to help you sleep better, for a price

CHENNAI : Shrenik Choudhary was losing his sleep, and regularly at that. Blame it on work-related stress: the 26-year-old from Hyderabad was with a food tech company in busy, buzzing Mumbai till stress and lack of sleep drove him to quit. While the financial capital did offer him a cutting-edge, adrenaline-powered competitive work environment, life was extremely hectic and schedules very erratic. There were long, irregular working hours and a lot of stress, says Choudhary. “My work was tiring. So, to compensate this, very often, I’d go to clubs and parties and hit (the) bed only by 3 am… only to get up at 8 am."

This routine continued for almost two years. And then, Choudhary became alarmingly lethargic and started losing weight. It was only then that he turned his attention to his sleep routine. He wanted to regularize his sleep and was also ready to put in some effort and money to that end. “I started using a sleep calculator app on my iPhone, and a Fitbit device to track the quantum and quality of my sleep," Choudhary says.

For starters, a sleep tracker can help a person identify night-time disturbances, in addition to providing advice on how to improve one’s rest. Even if you catch your recommended hours of shut-eye, such trackers are needed to understand your night-time sleep patterns and stressors. Based on his sleep tracker results, Choudhary enrolled for a sleep internship programme. “This (tracking) helped me get greater awareness and streamline my sleep," he says.

Choudhary is not alone. Thousands like him—in India and beyond—are now taking their sleep schedules a little more seriously, powering an emerging industry whose sole aim is to help its customers sleep better. According to the 2021 Philips Global Sleep Survey, globally, nearly 62% of adults feel they don’t sleep well. In the US alone, some 70 million people regularly suffer from sleep woes.

According to a study by activity trackers and wearables maker Fitbit, Indians are the second-most sleep-deprived, after Japan. Based on aggregated and anonymized user data from across 18 countries, Fitbit says that Indians get only 77 minutes of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep—the lowest in the world. REM sleep is the best form of sleep because it stimulates the brain areas that are essential for learning and making or retaining memories.

“Sleep disorders are predominantly lifestyle-related," says Dr N Ramakrishnan, a senior consultant in sleep medicine at Apollo Hospitals. “Indians work long hours and often have a long commute to work (as well). Many people do not focus on personal well-being and because of this, non-communicable diseases are on the rise," says Ramakrishnan, who is also director of the Nithra Sleep Clinic in Chennai.

According to him, over 35% of people feel they do not get enough sleep, impacting both their physical and mental health. “About 46% of individuals with frequent sleep disturbances report missing work or events, or making errors at work, compared to 15% of healthy sleepers," says Dr Ramakrishnan.

During the covid-19 pandemic, there has been a sharp rise in the number of people who experience sleep challenges. ‘Coronasomnia’ or ‘Covid-somnia’ is causing immense challenges to individuals, their employers and health experts. It also incurs a considerable economic toll via lost productivity. Chronic sleep problems are only likely to get worse in the near term, but businesses and startups have already taken stock of the potential opportunities arising out of this.

Sleep products and services

Solutions often need to be customized since sleep deficit may have a variety of disparate reasons. From high-end mattresses and pillows, personal devices and wellness goods to cuddling robots and heavy blankets that weigh around 10 kg, a bevy of sleep products and services are now already available or will soon hit the market.

In 2019, market researchers pegged the size of the global sleep economy—comprising products, services and applications connected to sleeping—at about $432 billion. The figure is forecast to grow to $585 billion by 2024, according to Statista. No wonder then that an ecosystem of manufacturers, retailers, health service providers, and pharmaceutical companies have begun to form around sleep health even in India.

According to a McKinsey report titled ‘Investing in the growing sleep-health economy’, the industry typically offers three types of sleep solutions: ambience optimization—which includes mattresses, pillows, curtains, sound and light controls; routine modification—which combines sleep tracking devices and smart alarm clocks; and therapeutic treatment with doctors (sleeping aids, apnea treatment devices and even surgeries).

With a rise in the level of awareness, consumers such as Choudhary are increasingly seeking out new solutions. The most experimented segment in the sleep solution business is mattresses. In recent years, mattresses have become a highly competitive commodity, sold by companies that operate like tech startups. Their offerings include the simple bed-in-the box, high-quality memory foam mattress, and the recent phenomenon of ‘mattresses with sensors’, which can react to a room’s temperature even while tracking the sleeper’s heart rate (in order to let them know how well their most recent snooze went).

That said, the sleep market is still in a very nascent stage, featuring a small group of early adopters. “The overall market for health and wellness wearables has been rising consistently," says Siddharth Shah, research manager, healthcare and life sciences practice, Frost & Sullivan. “In the Asia Pacific region, we expect more than 23% CAGR between 2019 and 2026 for unit shipments, which is higher than the global average of 20%." In India, looking at the growth of domestic players such as fitness tech firm GOQii, “it is clear that the wearables market is growing", adds Shah.

Non-wearable sleep-tracking products are also expanding, albeit slowly. A few local startups are experimenting with sleep pads and sensors that can be fixed under the pillow, which can then track both the quantum and quality of sleep. Bangalore-based health technology start-up Turtle Shell has launched Dozee, a sensor mat, which detects the smallest vibrations from the human body—such as the heartbeat, inhalation, exhalation, muscle twitches, etc.,—and rates your sleep based on vitals, restfulness, sleep quality and sleep routine. Based on the readings from the sensor, the device rates your sleep on a scale of 100. A score of over 80 means the quality of sleep was good.

High-end sleep wearable devices are also finding takers in the country. “We have seen big founders and celebrities buying ‘oura rings’, the smart sleep tracker devices, and the latest apple watch, which has ECG (electrocardiogram), and similar devices," says Chaitanya Ramalingegowda, co-founder and director, Wakefit, a speciality mattress maker.

Alphonse Reddy, founder and CEO of Bengaluru-based Sunday Rest, says that the covid-19 pandemic has brought in more people into the sleep market due to a set of push factors. “Youngsters are providing more attention to their bedrooms as they are spending a lot more time in their homes than earlier," Reddy said. People are also looking for more natural alternatives to the mattress, he says, adding that the demand for Sunday Rest’s mattresses has registered a growth of 400% in the past six months.

All in the game

With the market expanding, vendors are also experimenting and investing in research. As a result, smart pillows that can detect snoring and then vibrate to nudge you to change your sleeping position, ‘white noise’ machines that produce soothing sounds, and sleep metronomes, sleep lamps, sensor-embedded headbands are all coming up on the scene. Then, there is a new robot that mimics breathing to help people sleep comfortably.

Says Wakefit’s Ramalingegowda: “Sleep is very subjective and sensitive to conditions such as temperature, culture and geographies." For instance, he explains, mattresses used in Germany will be very hard, while in the US, they are extremely soft. “In India, it is somewhere in the middle. Currently, companies are investing a lot in R&D (research and development) to align temperature, comfort, strength, and optimize airflow in mattresses to address the varied needs," he said. Wakefit has R&D centres in Bangalore and Delhi.

One of the major drivers for the growth of the sleep economy is a newfound desire to have greater control over one’s nocturnal habits. “People have realized the need for sleep," says Dr Swami Subramaniam, CEO, Ignite LifeScience Foundation, and author of Mastering Sleep. “Earlier, an all-nighter used to be a proud statement. It is no longer considered (to be) a good thing. Articles that warn us that ‘One bad night’s sleep may increase levels of Alzheimer’s protein like beta-amyloid protein’ are creating a lot of awareness."

However, just tracking sleep isn’t quite enough. Users should know how to use these new solutions intelligently, says Subramaniam. “Many devices are coming to the market that can track sleep. But to use them fruitfully, people should know the physiology of sleep," he says.

Subramaniam says one of the major factors that can help a person to get a good night’s sleep is a keener understanding of one’s circadian rhythm (a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours), adequate lifestyle modifications and good sleep hygiene.

Wearables and apps that track sleep hours can be of help here but their appropriate use is important. “We notice that those who are using these devices are often obsessed with the data and are always anxious about not getting deep sleep," says Apollo Hospitals’ Dr Ramakrishnan. While the younger generation uses technology a lot, they often do not focus on appropriate information on health and well-being, Ramakrishnan adds.

Be careful with tech

Sleep is influenced by a variety of factors, such as the food and drinks one consumes, psychological stress level, pre-existing diseases and body pain, the quality of physical exercise and, most importantly, the level of blue light exposure. “The most important aspect of sleep medicine is distinguishing between normal and abnormal sleep patterns," Ramakrishnan says. “There are so many variations of normal sleep that we often end up primarily reassuring, suggesting lifestyle changes and educating on sleep hygiene."

Agrees Subhramanium. “Sleep is more of a matter of lifestyle and the choices you make." However, this is easier said than done. There are too many choices and many different factors related to sleep, which also change all the time. “Most people don’t need any assistance or therapy," says Subramaniam. “A well-educated person can with the combination of knowledge and a good tracking device manage to sleep very well."

Still, for now, the promise of better sleep is powering an economy of its own and the market is here to stay. According to a recent global survey by Mckinsey, half of the consumers surveyed reported a desire for more products and services to meet the need for higher-quality slumber, including app-enabled sleep trackers and other sleep-enhancing products like blackout curtains and gravity blankets. “India’s population is huge; there still is a sufficiently large opportunity here," says Shah of Frost & Sullivan. “However, customer acquisition costs would be higher for premium-priced products," he adds.

Clearly, the momentum is reflected in the market. In the US, the number of sleep-technology patents has increased by an average of 12% per year over the past decade, according to McKinsey.

Apps such as Pzizz, Sleep as Android and Sleep Cycle have all been recording good download numbers in recent years. And the sector is witnessing a boom in investment too. The broad range of sleep-health products and services create a plethora of entry points and investment philosophies for private equity firms.

In India too, companies are finding investors. Last month, Wakefit raised $28 million ( 200 crore) in a Series C funding round from investors led by the US-based SIG, a global trading and investment firm headquartered in Pennsylvania. In August, another mattress brand, SleepyCat, raised $3.8 million in a new round led by Saama Capital. Their competitor, The Sleep Company, raised 13.4 crore in pre-Series A funding round in July.

Indeed, the sleep industry seems to be slowly waking up.

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