In pursuit of perfect rest and the many markets springing around it
The Sleeping Beauty engraving in the Iberian illustration, 1885 (Photo: Alamy)
I DRAW THE QUILT to my chin and stare into the dark. The darkness feels palpable, almost an oppressive weight. It cannot be more than 9 pm, I tell myself. But there is no way to tell. My cellphone lies at some distance atop a chair, playing the sound of crickets and nocturnal birds.
For the past one week, I have been trying to follow, in some form or other, the personal sleep routine shared by the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Bryan Johnson. Johnson, who sold his previous startup Braintree to eBay for $800 million and currently runs Kernel which develops brain-computer interfaces, gained a lot of attention last year when he made his sleeping habits public. Now, having been turned out of the bed by my partner because of my sleeping eccentricities a few nights ago, alone in the guest room, I’m finally giving Johnson’s routine a real go. Dinner at 4 pm; no water after 6 pm; no coffee or alcohol all day; the air-conditioning set at a chilly 19 degrees Celsius; and the last one hour spent winding down, which really means pacing about in the room, not once glancing at my phone or computer, preparing myself for the night ahead. (In fact, I have spent all weekend using an app, f.lux, recommended by Johnson, that adjusts my computer’s brightness to the day’s natural lights.) Fifteen minutes to 8, I am seated cross-legged on a yoga mat doing a small meditation jig. By 8, transcendently meditative, I’m lying horizontally on the bed. I’m finally ready to fall asleep.
Except sleep is the furthest thing from me. About an hour has gone. My throat feels dry and my stomach already coils from hunger. I can feel the Fitbit Versa 2 smartwatch resting heavily on my wrist and my conscience. Next morning, I am certain, its deeply analytical charts of my sleep will pronounce, yet again, how poorly I have performed.
I break a large rule of Johnson’s routine. I feel my way through the darkness to the chair and, braving the blue lights of my cellphone, shut the nocturnal sounds from my phone. I switch instead to a bed-time story for adults on the Relax Melodies app. The narrator is preparing the protagonist for space travel by having him undergo a body scan. ‘Allow your body to sink into the mattress. Soften your forehead, your eyebrows…,’ the narrator says.
Outside my room’s door, the world, I know, is still alive. I take a deep breath and focus instead on the narrator. ‘We are now approaching the final ten seconds,’ the narrator goes on. The voice is oddly effective. It has a distant staccato quality. And the last thing I remember, as I finally doze off, is her reassuring me, ‘Remember you are meant to fall asleep in this journey. It is okay to…’
Sleep—like several other aspects of our lives—has now become a commodity. We are all desperate to acquire it, and yet never quite sure whether we possess it in its entirety. We may do our mandatory eight hours, but are we doing it effectively? We may meticulously control every aspect of our waking lives—fastidiously watching what we eat, counting our steps—but, once slumber brings the shutters down, are we maximising upon sleep’s full restorative quality? Is there a way of hacking into our bodies’ productivity—in the way Silicon Valley types undertake fastidious diets and vipasanna courses, or wear (and thus waste less time), like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, the same set of clothes everyday—by tinkering with sleep in our lives?
A host of devices have begun to flood the market in recent years to help get better shut-eye, from sleep trackers, white noise-emitting machines and sleep-inducing apps, to elsewhere in the world, smart rings, electric blankets, deep wave sound machines, brain-stimulating headbands, radiation-blocking Faraday tents and more. It is now uniformly accepted that our sleep has been blighted by a proliferation of gadgets but the solution strangely seems to be throwing one more gadget at it.
There have been very few studies that examine sleeping habits in India. The few that are around however suggest that the problem of sleep deficiency is acute. The activity tracker Fitbit in 2017 for instance found that Indians sleep the least number of hours (6.55 hours), only after Japan (6.35 hours). An older study that surveyed 5,600 people from 25 Indian cities—conducted in 2010 by The Nielsen Company, a market research company, for Philips Healthcare—found that 93 per cent of urban Indians in the age group of 35-65 years were sleep-deprived. They slept for less than eight hours, 58 per cent of them felt their work suffered because of it and 11 per cent fell asleep at work. Godrej Interio’s survey last year of 8,000 participants in metros found that 93 per cent of them reported sleep deprivation. The mattress startup Wakefit, which carries an annual survey called the Great Indian Sleep Scorecard, claimed earlier this year that 51 per cent of their respondents slept late (between 11 pm and 1 am) and 80 per cent reported feeling sleepy, anywhere between one and three days every week at work. One of the more startling revelations, according to Wakefit’s co-founder Chaitanya Ramalingegowda, was that sleep hours in India also vary upon gender. “Women on an average sleep between 60 and 90 minutes less than men. We may talk a lot about gender equality, but many of the women are going to sleep after or waking up before men to keep the house in order,” he says.
“It is difficult to say whether Indians are sleeping well or poorly because there is just so little research in this field. But of what I have noticed, I think it’s one of those big unexamined problems in our country,” says Dr HN Mallick, the president of the Indian Society of Sleep Research (ISSR), an organisation that conducts courses for sleep programmes and therapies. According to Mallick, the preponderance of gadgets and late hours is exacerbating the problem. But he believes schoolchildren in India are particularly sleep-deprived. “They need at least between nine to 10 hours of sleep. But, tell me, how many kids you know are getting that much sleep?”
The way wellness coach Luke Coutinho describes it, the value of sleep dawned upon him gradually. In the earlier part of his life, before he became a wellness consultant, first as someone who used to moonlight as a DJ at clubs in Goa and later when he worked night shifts in the hospitality sector, he was only beginning to get aware how intimately health and the biological clock went hand in hand. “The moment I came out of [night shifts and] my body readjusted to daylight and the sleep-wake cycle… that’s what made me value it even more,” he says.
Even when he began to work as a wellness consultant and started undertaking long trips to international destinations, most of his tickets, booked by companies or clients, would invariably be the cheapest and most uncomfortable. “When I started my career, I would travel to places like Antwerp, Belgium, New York, and I realised how my sacrifice of that one night of sleep would affect the entire week in terms of energy levels, mood, cravings for carbohydrates and sugary foods, irritation… whereas adequate sleep would entirely change all of this,” he says. “I think everyone as a teenager has had late nights, but as you reach twenties or mid-twenties, you realise that a change in your sleep routine is important.”
Coutinho is today one of the country’s most popular wellness coaches. Described as a holistic lifestyle coach in integrative medicine, he runs health centres and wellness stores and his daily fitness tips online shared online (he has nearly 400,000 followers on Facebook and over 150,000 on Instagram) have a large following. In all his programmes for clients, sleep is an essential component along with nutrition, exercise and emotional (or stress) detox, and patients are handed down methods for achieving better sleep.
Coutinho isn’t satisfied with just adequate sleep. “It’s not about ‘how much’ you sleep, it’s about ‘how well’ you sleep,” he says. “One could be sleeping for 10 hours every night but still wake up tired and unrested, whereas one could sleep for five-six hours but wake up feeling energetic and rested.” According to him, sleep is a five-stage process and while each stage serves a unique restorative function, the most vital functions are served during stages 3 and 4. “Which means it’s absolutely essential for us to sleep so deep that we successfully enter stage 3 and 4,” he says. “Unfortunately, most of us do not even enter those stages because of poor sleeping habits.”
In Coutinho’s own sleep routine, he completes his dinner and stays away from all forms of social media, by 6 pm or 6.30 pm. Occasionally, he will take urgent calls from clients but he ensures there is around two or three hours of gap between his last phone use and bedtime. The blue lights from phones and computers are believed to hinder sleep by blocking the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates our sleep-waking cycle. Coutinho straps an eyewear in the night that converts artificial light to normal yellow light; dims all lights in the house closer to bedtime and does 30 minutes of pranayama and meditation, before turning to bed. Even when he travels, he says, he ensures he picks flights, however expensive, where he can sleep throughout. Coutinho dislikes the idea of gadgets that track his sleep because, according to him, it can get in the way of people understanding their body’s own intuition. “If we listen carefully, our body is always trying to give biofeedbacks which are far more accurate than any gadget,” he says.
Unlike Coutinho, others like Bangalore-based nutritionist Ryan Fernando are more dependent on gadgets. Fernando, who runs Qua Nutrition Clinic, goes to sleep every night using a PEMF (pulsed electromagnetic frequency) therapy device. This device, placed under the bed, he explains in a video online, subjects an individual’s body to electromagnetic bursts that are believed to improve general wellbeing. He also tracks his heartbeat (apart from the snoring and restlessness of his sleep) using an app called Dozee, especially in the mornings when he wakes up. An elevated heart rate will suggest that he hasn’t slept well.
Although the gains the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Bryan Johnson has made his sleep has come at a cost to his social life, it hadn’t occurred to him, he says in his blog, that becoming the most boring person could also feel so good. Now, all his employees at Kernel wear Oura rings and are told that not pulling all-nighters but sleeping adequately is a priority for the company.
Johnson uses a number of devices, from an electric blanket and a chillpad that cools the mattress to a deep-wave sound machine. He claims that his routine has helped him experience significant gains, especially in the stage classified as deep sleep, where most of the body’s physical recovery takes place, boosting it up to as much as 157 per cent.
The next morning when I wake up from what has been my best, most uninterrupted sleep in months, the battery on my cellphone now entirely depleted from the bedtime story of an interstellar traveller, I find the same ‘Fair’ rating on my Fitbit. My deep sleep stage is still the same pitiable 14 per cent it has been all of last week.
When I turn to Mallick, he explains that 14 per cent for one stage is perfectly normal. There are two types of sleep, he explains: rapid eye movement (REM, the stage in which we dream) and the three stages of non-REM sleep. “We grow through all the four stages in a cycle, each cycle around 90 minutes each, with a good night’s sleep meaning we have done at least five or six such cycles,” he says.
All of last week using the Fitbit Versa 2, considered to possess one of the best sleep tracking features currently available in the market, I find myself obsessing about my sleep. I wake up sometimes in the middle of the night to check my sleeping performance on my watch. I refuse to go to the restroom even when I wake up to a full bladder. And sometimes I think I have stayed up all night worrying about my sleep.
Several studies have found that sleep-tracking technology, which primarily looks at movement and heart rate, may be providing inaccurate data. They could also worsen insomnia by making people obsessed with achieving perfect slumber, a condition termed as orthosomnia.
Some researchers have suggested that the idea of a long, uninterrupted sleep of about eight hours or so is actually a more recent phenomenon. Most human sleep before the mid-19th century could have been biphasic, with an hour or two or more separating two periods of sleep. It was only around in the mid-1800s, when gas and electrical lighting became widely available, and the rise of shift-work began, that, as this theory goes, one consolidated sleep started to become the norm.
Can this modern period, of 24X7 streaming TV and gadgets that emit blue lights, tweak sleeping habits yet again?
The sleep economy is growing in India. More devices are being created or entering the market. A Bengaluru-based tech company is developing AI-powered rings (Aina ring) that among other things also tracks sleep.
But by far the biggest competition is in the mattress business. A number of startups, some of them venture capital-funded, have entered this space in the last few years. They call themselves sleep solution companies. There are charcoal-infused memory foam pillows that claim to filter indoor pollutants, mattresses that do not retain body heat and those that promise ‘zero partner disturbance’ from restless companions. One of them, Wakefit, has even filed a patent for a type of an upper layer in memory foam mattresses, CoolFit foam, that fixes a common problem of trapped heat seen with these types of mattresses in warm countries like India.
According to these companies, the traditional mattress setup is broken, the claims made by manufacturers suspect and the chemicals used dodgy, and the choices available to the customer too bewildering. Many of these startups make it a point to sell only two or three types of mattresses and, because they sell directly to the customer online, are able to bypass altogether the usual distribution and retailer networks which provide no value but eat the largest bulk of profits. “Just go to a showroom of any branded company today and the salesperson will show you 10 different mattresses and say all are equally good. They will just ask you for your budget and sell you a mattress accordingly,” says Wakefit’s Ramalingegowda.
According to him, when the first boom in health-related startups occurred a few years ago, it was driven entirely by nutrition and fitness-related ventures. “Everybody forgot sleep,” he says. “But it’s taking off now and you see these days, especially among the youths, a concern about sleeping correctly.”
When the company was first established over four years ago, hoping to get sleep-related data from their customers, they unsuccessfully tried tying up with Xiaomi to gift their activity trackers along with the mattresses. The company is currently in the process of selecting around 15 ‘sleep interns’, whose sleep on the company’s mattresses over 100 nights will be tracked. They will each be paid Rs 1 lakh and have to sleep nine hours daily for 100 consecutive nights. And although the data generated will be more useful as a campaign to show how effective the right mattress can be, Ramalingegowda says going ahead they would like to generate such sleep data collected from larger numbers to help them tweak their mattress more.
Sunday, another popular startup, sells European-certified mattresses that are manufactured from Belgium latex. Their mattresses range from nearly Rs 50,000 for its kingsize option to the more affordable Rs 9,000 for a single-bed memory foam version. Its founder Alphonse Reddy ran a sleep-related marketplace FabMart, before coming around to establish his own line of mattresses. “Sleep is a bit like a good dining experience. It’s not just about the taste of the food, it’s also about the presentation, the ambience,” he says. “To get a good night’s sleep, you need the right temperature, the best mattress, a good set of sheets.”
According to Reddy, one of the USPs of his company is that they are constantly tinkering with their mattresses which are currently in their fourth generation—some have gone through as many as 27 iterations in one generation. Reddy himself is always sleeping on a prototype.
But what a mattress can achieve, he claims, is reaching a stagnation point. In the next phase which is currently under development, they will be using all the data they have gathered so far on people’s sleeping patterns—from a person’s age, job or fitness background to even details about whether they like to sleep on their sides or backs—to develop a platform that will recommend the right mattress to an individual.
New attention on sleep is also reimagining spaces not traditionally meant for sleeping. Some companies have nap rooms for employees. Sleeping pods, available on an hourly basis, are beginning to come up in spaces like Mumbai’s Terminal 2 airport. The Dubai-based Aviserv Airport Services, which set up this facility, is targeting more airports and even, as it told one reporter, railway stations.
A little over three years ago, when the Apollo Hospitals group was setting up its large and plush establishment in Navi Mumbai, Santosh Marathe, the Chief Operating Officer and Unit Head of Apollo Hospitals in Navi Mumbai, says, the past experience of the group turned their attention towards the sleeping comforts of a neglected lot in hospitals: the patient’s attendant. The group set up two large dormitories, each with 75 beds for male and female attendants. Each bed comes with a blanket and pillow, a small cabinet, a plug point and a lamp that casts an undisturbing soft light. Marathe also looks at these dormitories as an altruistic measure, where instead of converting the space into patient rooms where more money can be generated, they have decided to keep the attendant in mind, many of whom come with patients from remote places and need accommodation.
Two years ago, while attending to a relative in the hospital, I made my way into this space. I’ve spent enoughnights attending to relations in shared hospital rooms, tottering on a single chair or trying to fit my frame in an uncomfortable sofa, to appreciate what I saw. A man in charge of the dormitory, carrying a torch like an usher in a theatre, took us to our beds, noted down the number in a ledger lest an emergency arise and the attendant be required beside the patient, and left us to our beds. The place had something of a futuristic feel, rows and rows of beds laid out like sleeping pods, and in the darkness, I could even make out the shape of paintings on the wall. This was as good a place as any to fall asleep, I thought.
And then it was midnight and the snores of 75 men began, exacerbated by anxiety no doubt, in different cadences and rhythms, sometimes all at once, never once letting up, making sleep here too impossible.