Artist Hans Op de Beeck (Courtesy: Design Miami/Basel)
If you don’t sleep well, chances are you subscribe to the capitalist machismo of overachievers who claim to function on four hours of shut-eye, or you are among a growing tribe of unfortunate urban Indians who are being swept up in what neuroscientist Mathew Walker in his life-changing 2017 book Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams called “the silent sleep loss epidemic.” In a world that reveres continuous functioning and productivity, the value of sleep has been corroded by the fixation to conquer it. It is only now, after science and Arianna Huffington have introduced us to the concept of “sleep hygiene”, that the need for good sleep has crept into our public consciousness. Sleep has become a part of fictional and factual discourse in more ominous ways than before. In Chasing the Sun: The New Science of Sunlight and How it Shapes Our Bodies and Minds, Linda Geddes’ 2019 book based on the discovery of molecular mechanisms controlling our circadian rhythms that won researchers the 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine, she describes struggling to escape the always-on stimulation of artificial light in Las Vegas, and prescribes hours in the sun and cooking by candlelight to reset your body clock—not a whole lot different from a 1782 exhortation by German school principal Theodor Stockmann that “we must become people of the sun, children of the light.” In Sleep Donation, a dystopian novella by Karen Russell, a lethal insomnia is claiming lives and sleep is a rare commodity to be donated by the gifted.
Sleep is indeed a rare thing—it is both a sweet escape from life and a leap of faith that we will wake up alive. And it is becoming rarer still. It takes most normal adults device-free wind-downs, a thoughtfully crafted mattress, noise cancellation and a fitness tracker to get seven hours of sleep each night; a chronic insomniac is wont to hunt down all manner of soporifics, from herbs and over-the-counter hormones to blue-light-blocking glasses and white noise machines, to still the body and the mind for a brief spell. A whole new industry has mushroomed to help us get a good night’s sleep. A company in Australia now makes fashion-forward glasses that block most of the harmful blue and green light that upset circadian rhythms. Popular meditation apps like Calm and Headspace feature music, sleep radio and sleepcasts delivered in the dreamiest of voices to help us drift off. And yet, those of us who lay awake at night caught in thought loops, marinating in our regrets and hopes, are waiting for something more. We track our sleep scores, know the half-life of caffeine and the restoring properties of REM and non-REM sleep, and ransack our dreams for clues to why sleep is no longer as effortless as it is supposed to be.
“India is slowly but surely losing sleep,” says Dr Hrudananda Mallick, president of the Indian Society for Sleep Research, and a sleep researcher at the Department of Physiology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi. “The growing incidence of insomnia is due to a combination of anxiety, work stress, changing lifestyle and habits, exposure to artificial light and climatic conditions. Teenagers, as well as women, who are more likely to experience insomnia than men, now routinely seek out over-the-counter remedies that promise better sleep, including melatonin, the dark hormone, which helps push back the circadian clock,” says Dr Mallick. Clinically, however, the study of sleep disorders in India is limited to sleep apnea (a breathing disorder), he says. “Sleep clinics in the country are run by pulmonologists, not neurologists or psychiatrists. Healthcare device companies that make continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines have a big stake in this disorder, whereas insomnia has only recently been recognised as a disorder in itself and not a symptom. In fact, most doctors aren’t familiar with sleep medicine; in a five-year MBBS curriculum, barely five hours are devoted to the science of sleep.” Globally, doctors treat insomnia with drugs and cognitive behavioural therapy. Dr Mallick’s group is researching the practice of yoga nidra (yogic sleep) as an alternative to the latter, with a publication underway.
Where doctors have failed those striving to sleep better, technology and lifestyle apps have come to the rescue. “I am never without my fitness tracker,” says Surbhi Jain, a 30-year-old from Lawa, a tiny town of about 6,000 people in Rajasthan who has spent half her life in Mumbai and now Bengaluru—a “14-year vanvaas (exile),” she calls it. Along with a team of five—15, if you count the freelance voice artists she works with—she is building Neend, an app that tells stories in Indian languages. Jain fell off the sleep wagon quite incidentally while caring for her entire family when they were down with Covid-19 last year. It took her two-to-three months of concerted effort to start sleeping normally again. She had just quit her job at a startup consulting house in Bengaluru to begin an EdTech venture of her own, but now she found herself drawn to the prospect of delivering good sleep to people. “I had tried story apps and podcasts but they didn’t work for me—not only was the content in English, it was often delivered in an American accent and made references to lavender gardens and other cultural settings that aren’t familiar to Indians. Sleep is a wind-down process and if you have to pay attention to understand the story, it will only make your brain more active.” Neend kicked off with simple, 10-minute-long experiential narratives in Hindi. “You could call them nature and travel stories. There is no storyline. You are the centre of the story and you are made to feel the elements around you—the soothing breeze, the rise and fall of the sun and waves, the sounds of the night. The only reason you would listen to such stories is to relax and to fall asleep,” Jain says. There are 27,000 users on the app now, 60 per cent of them women, most of whom log in every night or on alternate nights. Over 88 per cent, Jain says, report that the stories—there are over 110—help them sleep. Eighty per cent said that as children, they had listened to stories told by a parent or a grandparent.
“We will be launching several products in the comfort space next year. We are also entering the international market in the next six-to-nine months. We have applied for patents,” says Ankit Garg, CEO and co-founder, Wakefit
Share this on
Jain has interesting insights into the average Indian sleep cycle. Most people turn in by 11PM, she says, with the app getting the most traffic between 10.30PM and 11PM. Neend has been experimenting with longer stories based on mythology and folklore, and has had users come back to listen to the same stories over and over. “Our most popular story is called “Ganga Kinare”, where you are in the river, watching the ghat and the evening aarti,” she says. Tier-2 cities like Indore and Jaipur contribute much of the traffic. Neend has plans to launch in Marathi and Telugu next, and in the long run, wants to help people fix the root cause of their insomnia rather than merely address the symptoms with soothing audio content. “We will also have a tracker built into the app and explore tie-ups with tracking devices,” says Jain, who is piloting music and white noise as sleep aids in addition to stories, and is in talks with investors to raise seed funding.
“There is much innovation in the world of sleep tech. In fact, the first India Sleep Show was supposed to be held in March last year; it has been pushed to March 2022 due to the pandemic,” Dr Mallick says. While a very small percentage of Indians wear fitness trackers, new-age mattress companies have been using them to conduct sleep studies and to create a buzz about their products. American mattress makers have forayed into pod-beds that can detect your heartbeat, temperature and breathing and heat or cool accordingly; they are adding ambient factors like lighting and sound to their portfolio of products. A report by Grand View Research predicts that the global mattress market size, valued at $27.5 billion in 2018, is set to expand at a CAGR of 6.7 per cent from 2019 to 2025. In India, where until a few years ago, a mattress was a mere necessity, the field is only just heating up. Wakefit, a six-year-old direct-to-consumer sleep and home solutions startup, recorded 2x growth in the past year and expects to close the financial year with ₹ 700 crore in annual revenues. Ankit Garg, 32-year-old CEO and co-founder of Wakefit, says the company consulted sleep specialists and engineers in the US to understand how to achieve optimal surface temperature. “We studied open cell and closed cell technology to achieve a high degree of air circulation in our foam products,” Garg says. The company has a 100-day no-questions-asked return policy, with the ratio of returns hovering at a low 4 per cent. While Wakefit has diversified into furniture, it is also keen on expanding its suite of sleep products, Garg says. “We will be launching several products in the comfort space next year. We are also entering the international market in the next six-to-nine months. We have applied for patents.”
“It often starts with changing your mattress, wearing an eye mask, or aromatics. In the beginning, you are not ready to dig deeper into what is keeping you awake. You change everything around you, but eventually, you have to undergo a profound change within to be able to sleep better,” says Smita Prakash, a 40-year-old visual artist from Pune. “This preoccupation with sleep that we see in recent times is not just a boomer health fad. It is a real problem, one that I have tried to remedy with melatonin drops, special pillows and lifestyle changes like eating a light dinner and going to bed at the same time—10PM—every night.” A meditation and yoga retreat in Mysuru helped her sleep better as well as to make peace with the hours she spent lying awake, she says. “Yes, you have to establish nightly routines and make changes to your life, but at some point, you also have to let go and stop trying too hard.”
“The time before we go to bed is family bonding time. It could last just five minutes, with our daughters bringing us up to speed with their lives, or it could be an hour-long conversation on a Sunday night. It helps to go to sleep with your mind at rest,” says Colonel Ranjit Singh (retired), who is one of 15 candidates selected for Wakefit’s 100-day sleep internship programme, Season 2. The internship, which is about to kick off, will see participants take part in weekly challenges “to show their commitment to sleep” and upload videos to a website. At the end of the 100-day period, viewers will vote for and pick the “sleep champion of India.” Singh, who served in the Army for 32 years, says he is blessed with the ability to fall asleep at will—perhaps a result of surviving on less than five hours of sleep under less-than-ideal conditions for years. “You learn to make the most of what you have. But now that I have more time, I want to understand and make sense of my sleep patterns,” he says.
“Sleep is a wind-down process and if you have to pay attention to understand the story, it will only make your brain more active,” says Surbhi Jain, founder, Neend
Share this on
If the nutraceuticals industry is suddenly awash with sleep elixirs and tonics, beauty bloggers promoting multistep nightly routines are quick to recommend fragrance oils to help you relax. Dame Essentials, a Chandigarh-based company that makes plain luxury mulberry silk pillowcases that retail for ₹ 4,000-5,000 each, says its marketing is focused on sleep and wellbeing, not beauty. “Invest in rest,” reads a banner on the company website, featuring a model on a silk-covered bed peeking from behind a silk eye mask. “Without sleep, you have nothing really,” says Armaan Mann, the founder and CEO. From 100 pillowcases a month in 2016, the company sells about a thousand today.
“The pandemic has changed daily routines in good and bad ways. One result we are seeing is the massive spike in demand for chamomile tea,” says Gopal Upadhyay, head of procurement at Teabox, the first D2C startup to disrupt the market for fine teas from India. Teabox has three products aimed at sleep seekers: a blend of Western and Indian herbs, a pure chamomile tea, and a chamomile green tea. “Volume-wise, chamomile is our best-selling product—it has beaten all our earlier bestsellers. We sell a thousand boxes of it every day,” he says.
The pandemic has also altered consumer behaviour, says Priyanka Salot of The Sleep Company, a sleep and home solutions startup whose USP is a polymer-based smart grid ergonomic mattress. “Consumers have started to spend more time researching products before buying them, and rather than older parents, it is the young who make informed decisions for the family. Our typical customer is between 30 and 45.
Thirty-five to 40 per cent of our customer base comes from Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities,” says Salot, who founded the company with her husband Harshil in 2019. The Sleep Company has seen 10x growth during Covid, and says it expects to close the year with revenues of ₹ 100 crore. Manufacturing happens in Mumbai, though the polymer is imported. The company sent Fitbit bands to over 500 customers and asked them to share data for a period of time before and after making the switch to their mattress. “Users reported they snored less with our mattress, and their heart rate and body temperature were more stable,” Salot says. “Outside of sleep studies, we don’t want to ask our customers to track parameters. We would rather use technology as the backbone to build better sleep products.”
Is our society indeed burdened with a mounting sleep debt? How far should we be willing to go in our quest for good sleep? Is it possible to sleep too much? How do we ensure we wake up with our brain in great shape to face the day? These are all important questions to which every sleep-striver must seek answers. Just don’t start before bedtime.