On a Wednesday afternoon, in a darkened room on the ground floor of the vast PricewaterhouseCoopers building on the bank of the Thames, sleep expert Dr Guy Meadows took to the stage and set about giving the crowd nightmares. He started, in fairness, with a joke.
“If you are feeling tired today,” said Meadows to the hundred or so PwC employees, “this is probably the one talk where it’s perfectly OK to have a good nap.”
The crowd chortled. Sleep experts don’t have too many jokes in their locker, but this was a hardy perennial and Meadows – a slight man with the forced bonhomie of a stage hypnotist – explained he was the cofounder of The Sleep School. It had programmes for schools and parents, he said, but today was its increasingly popular “professional” programme – for businesses.
The past decade, he said, had seen a “tidal wave” of new research all showing the multifaceted importance of sleep to human performance and so he set about explaining how they could use it to – quite literally – sleep their way to the top.
Sleep research is often only defined in the negative – there’s no benefit to sleeping more than you need (actually, it’s often bad for you). So Meadows began to explain the mental and physical catastrophes in store if you slept less.
First, weight. In the past six years, he said, researchers had found that cravings for junk food increases 45 percent for the underslept. Lack of sleep swells the hormone for appetite and, worse, limits the hormone for satisfaction, so we don’t feel full even after eating it. The result: “We don’t know when to stop.”
Next, dementia. In the past seven years, he said, researchers discovered that cerebrospinal fluids were pushed up during the night in order to wash out all the toxins the brain created by thinking during the day. The degradation of this process – naturally with age, unnaturally by simply sleeping less – dramatically increases the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Two women next to me shared a glance.
Finally, mental health. “Have you ever heard of the phrase ‘getting out of the bed on the wrong side’?” he asked the crowd. They had. Research found that your stresses through the day are replayed during REM sleep at night (as dreams), but with the stress hormones switched off. “So it allows us to take perspective and reset ourselves emotionally.”
Far from simply being something you did in order not to feel tired, sleep was the ultimate wellness cure. As Meadows put it on stage, “It’s the most powerful performance enhancer known to humankind!”
The assembled PwC staff had completed a survey. Most said they wanted to increase their attention to detail (sleep, naturally, was good for that). Many wanted to increase their problem-solving (“Have you heard the expression ‘sleep on it’?” Meadows asked. They had).
Meadows mentioned cutting-edge advances currently taking place and how they could help at work too. In the US, he said, researchers were looking to develop technology within the next decade that would let us interact with our dreams (“assisting things like problem-solving”). With other advances, “You could merge into someone else’s dream,” like video-conferencing.
For now, the solutions were more prosaic. Caffeine (none after midday), alcohol (not too much) and any form of screen (the blue light makes our brains think it’s daytime; try to have at least a half-hour break before bed) were bad. A regular sleep routine: good.
“But I don’t want to scare you!” he insisted.
This was true. Of that tidal wave of recent research, some results were far worse. He didn’t tell them, for instance, that routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours so demolishes your immune system that it doubles your risk of cancer; or that regular short sleeping also increases the likelihood of your coronary arteries becoming brittle and blocked, leading to cardiovascular disease, strokes and congestive heart failure; or that in the spring, when most people lose an hour’s sleep due to daylight savings, the rate of heart attacks increases by a quarter.
Put simply: the less you sleep, the less you live. Devotees of the mantra “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” will likely get their wish. Diet and exercise are commonly thought to have the biggest impact on health, but the reality is it’s not even close. If you’re missing sleep to get up for the gym, you’d be better off staying in bed.
And yet, as Meadows put it on stage, “Tiredness is now the new norm.” Of his audience alone, 35 percent said they weren’t satisfied with their sleep (the national average is much higher: 63 percent). They got, on average, six-and-a-half hours’ sleep a night (the national average is six hours and 19 minutes). More than half of the employees said they don’t wake up refreshed.
As our attention economy reaches its nadir, we live in a world that demands our gaze and keeps it as long as it can. Take your pick from the dopamine rush of social media, the endless scroll of the internet, the auto-play of streaming services, an always-on work culture or the steep rise in anxiety: the end result is the same. We’ve never known more about the impact of sleep and yet we’ve never slept less. We are permanently entertained.
On stage, Meadows said the UK was undergoing a nationwide “sleep deprivation experiment”. But it’s not just the Brits. In developed nations, two-thirds of adults don’t get the recommended eight hours. The problem is so acute that in 2017, the World Health Organization declared it a global “sleep-loss epidemic”.
And so, recently, something else has happened too. Into this world of late-capitalism sleeplessness, business has seen the money to be made in
helping us sleep.
We now have all manner of sleep gurus and sleep clinics, corporate classes and sleep retreats. Whole holidays exist for you to be unconscious as much as possible. We can track our sleep via apps and mats and rings that rank and rate our sleep. We can enhance it by white noise and pink noise and possibly some other colours too. Mattress companies were suddenly tech start-ups. Tech start-ups were suddenly mattress companies. There are high-tech pillows and mood-altering blankets and “smart” pyjamas endorsed by NFL stars. One mattress scolds you for not lying on it enough. There are bestselling sleep books and a sleep podcast – Sleep With Me, now downloaded around two million times a month – that hopes you’ll miss how it ends. It is an industry now estimated to be worth more than $120 billion.
Finally, and perhaps inevitably, after centuries of simply concentrating on our waking hours, capitalism is now coming for our sleep.
Before he became a secret weapon of Manchester City and Liverpool – and specifically the most recent season that saw them both come close to 100 points in the Premier League along with bagging every cup between them – Nick Littlehales was in the mattress game.
He considered it nonsense mostly (“complete nonsense!”) and so was pondering a midlife crisis until he fell into football. The Slumberland factory where he worked was in Oldham. The company ended up sponsoring Oldham Athletic and before he knew it, “Suddenly I’m standing in rooms with Alex Ferguson.”
Littlehales had always been fascinated by the sleep researchers he worked with, but he felt frustrated too: they only focused on the clinical side. Littlehales, knowing the importance of marginal gains in elite sport, wondered why that knowledge couldn’t be used in football. In 1998, he sent Ferguson a letter and, to his surprise, Ferguson replied.
“Nobody else would have,” he says. “But it happens to be Alex Ferguson. He had a mindset for it. They were pushing the boundaries.”
His first task was centre-back Gary Pallister, who was struggling with chronic back injuries. The club were pondering spinal surgery, but Littlehales diagnosed the problem: his mattress was too soft. The new mattress didn’t cure it, “but it helped enormously”.
Impressed, the club set him up in the players’ lounge one day so that any of the squad could ask for his advice. The only one who did: winger Ryan Giggs, then 25. “And he was fascinated. He was one of the very early adopters of what we now class as recovery.”
Littlehales went to Giggs’ home. He changed the ambient light in his bedroom (too much) and the size of his mattress (too small: Littlehales contests that, evolutionarily speaking, humans aren’t meant to sleep together, but allows a super king if we must). Most crucially, Littlehales had come to realise that simply prescribing the usual eight hours to footballers was pointless: with their changing schedules and kick-off times they hardly ever got it. Instead, he spoke to Giggs about 90-minute “recovery periods” he could take after training sessions. Or, as we know them, naps.
“Did he take it on board?” Littlehales asks rhetorically. “Well, he could still play for a Premier League team now.” (Giggs finally retired in 2014, aged 40, as Manchester United’s record appearance holder.)
After consulting with Giggs it wasn’t long before Ferguson was asking Littlehales to clear out a room at Manchester United’s Carrington training ground so the players could nap between sessions. The coaches noticed the improvement instantly. He consulted for Real Madrid. Cristiano Ronaldo was an enthusiast.
“He’s on Instagram all the time, talking about his 90-minute naps,” says Littlehales. He also turns off every screen in his house 90 minutes before bed.
Crucially, Littlehales currently consults with Liverpool, who this year finished second in the Premier League and won the Champions League, and Manchester City, who won the Premier League plus both domestic cups.
When Manchester City were planning their new $250-million training complex in 2014, they worked with Littlehales on it and the result was a state-of-the-art “recovery performance centre, not just a performance centre”. For the first time in Premier League history, players would sleep overnight at their base before a home game. It halved Manchester City’s use of hotels. And as Littlehales would tell them, “Any time a human stays in a hotel their recovery is reduced by 40 percent.” (This is also down to evolution: researchers think the new environment causes part of our brains to be on guard against potential threats, hence a worse night’s sleep.)
Tottenham Hotspur have since joined them, adding a “Lodge” with 40 sleep rooms last year, but Littlehales is dismissive of their efforts: “Tottenham have made some changes, some investment, here, there and everywhere. But I also know they’re not doing it with any great thought.”
When Littlehales began consulting with Liverpool, meanwhile, he was horrified by where the team stayed for away games in London – “The St Pancras [Renaissance] Hotel! It’s a bloody train station!” – and so moved them three miles away to a Travelodge. It was less glamorous, but he could kit it out to their exact specifications. “So we spend the same amount of money – but not on the facility, on our impact on it.”
His most recent innovation has seen him recommend to them that training sessions should take place at the same time as the kick-off of their next match, in order to sync the players’ body clocks.
“So if a game was at 8pm we wouldn’t start training until 8 o’clock at night.”
He worries constantly about chronotype: the hard-wired sleep cycle of each person that either defines you as a lark (a morning person), an owl (an evening person) or somewhere in the middle (no one has come up with an animal for this yet). He’ll suddenly realise, for instance, the entire back four for an upcoming game are all owls, but the kick-off is at 12.30pm. Nightmare! “The defence is still asleep!”
As for next season, there is even more work to be done. Last year he also started advising unfashionable Norwich City in the EFL Championship (“Another German coach,” he points out). They duly won the league, gaining promotion, and their first Premier League fixture was away to Liverpool – the battle of the incredibly well slept (Liverpool won).
In his time, Littlehales has consulted for all manner of sporting organisations, including the England national team and British Cycling, and yet it was only with the publication of his book about sleep in 2016 (titled, simply, Sleep) that people outside sport have started taking notice.
“For virtually 22 years,” he says, “nobody has cared. It’s been lonely out there, way out in front of something.”
Littlehales now works with the police, airline pilots, the fire service and several universities. Just don’t get him started on his rival experts: “There’s so much crap out there now! There’s people who do hypnotherapy who’ve become sleep coaches. There’s people who used to sit in sleep clinics in universities who’ve come out and started writing books. All this stuff going on trying to get into this trillion-dollar black hole of sleep.”
When he talks to footballers now, he says, he realises the work has changed. At the start it was simply marginal gains – better recovery, performance, mood, motivation, stamina – from people who mostly slept well. But now the problem is to get them to sleep in the first place.
“The latter years it’d been about protecting people. It’s not the blue light from screens. It’s the information overload. That’s what messes with your brain.”
And so Littlehales, who often camps in his own garden if he has trouble sleeping, has come up with a remarkably low-tech solution: the players should start camping too.
“People say, ‘What do you call that, Nick? Mindfulness? Mind resilience? Joe Wicks’ new body coaching [or] whatever?’ No, it’s just human beings are designed to sleep outside with the sun going around our planet. I’m just connecting the two things up. So let’s just pitch our tents, because you’re going to get better recovery, mate. ‘Really?’ they say. Yeah. Champions League final coming up? Get the tents in the car park.”
If you want to isolate a time when the idea of wellness began to dominate our culture, you could do worse than point to the 2008 financial crisis. In a few short months, an entire generation felt their grip on the future slip. Jobs became scarce, before scarcely becoming jobs. Zero hours became the new nine to five. Suddenly, nearly everyone needed a side hustle and nearly everyone else needed to be told what one was. Property became a pipe dream. Social media showed them what they didn’t have. Generation Anxious was born.
Headspace, the digital health and meditation platform launched by former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe, arrived in 2010 to calm worried minds and make a buck while doing so. It’s currently worth around $320m. Relaxation app Calm joined the party in 2012 and launched a ‘Sleep Stories’ section in 2016, many of which are read by celebrities. You can currently listen to Matthew McConaughey say things such as, “How often do we ponder the depth of the present moment?” It is currently valued at $984 million. If millennials couldn’t control the world around them, then maybe they could at least manage how they felt about it.
On a spring afternoon I took a short Tube ride to Highbury & Islington, London, and to the attic room of a top-floor Victorian flat that overlooks the train station and acts as the headquarters of Mela Comfort, the weighted-blanket start-up founded in late 2017 by university friends Samuel Hochland, 30, and Matthew King, 29. The room (Hochland and his girlfriend live below) consists of a sofa, a desk and a whiteboard with things like “Offer value!!!” and “Final Amazon launch” and “Podcasts!!!” written on it. A well-thumbed copy of the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson sat in the corner.
Hochland, who brings to mind a young Steve Buscemi, explained that he and King had been looking to start a business in the booming area of sleep when they came across the 2017 Kickstarter campaign of a US start-up called Gravity. The company seemed to be offering something magical: a weighted blanket that would “treat sleep, stress and anxiety”. Its goal was $21,000; it raised more than $4.3m. The only problem was it couldn’t deliver. A Facebook group sprang up (Anti-Gravity Blanket: “The ‘waited’ blanket that creates stress and anxiety because it doesn’t ship”) and threats of legal action followed.
The idea of a weighted blanket wasn’t technically new: over a decade earlier, parents had discovered autistic children would finally settle if they had extra weight on them and so started sewing pennies into duvets. It’s the same science, everyone in the weighted-blanket business will tell you, behind why you swaddle a baby. It’s like being held tightly. Only now the target market had changed: it was anxious millennials who required swaddling to sleep.
Hochland was sceptical at first: “How can something so low-tech have such a profound effect on people?” But he soon came around when his girlfriend, who suffers from panic attacks, used one for the first time and found it was the only thing that had ever helped her (“She said, ‘This is a game-changer for me’”).
They knew how much Gravity’s blanket cost to make (not much) and felt they could make a better one, cheaper (Steve Jobs’ mantra: “Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected”). They used quartz micro-pellets for the weight, so it wouldn’t rustle (as some did) or leak (as the ones with sand tended to: “People were waking up with patches of sand in their bed,” said King). They sold theirs from $155 each, less than half the price of Gravity’s. They launched their products last spring and sold $225,000 worth in four days alone in December. In the final quarter of this year they project to sell $12.5 million worth, despite a plethora of weighted-blanket rivals having joined them, all promising to pin you to your bed.
King put the problem in a global context: “People are looking for natural solutions to sleep. Look what’s happening in America with the whole prescription opioid crisis.”
Hochland, meanwhile, cited the key pressures – “There’s a lot of social pressures, work pressures, economic pressures, personal pressures” – that now require duvet pressure.
But he also mentioned something else: many don’t buy the blankets to sleep. They buy them, he said, to swaddle themselves on their sofas.
Talk to any sleep expert for long enough and eventually they will mention their nemesis. It is always the same person. In 2017 Netflix CEO Reed Hastings was asked what he considered to be his biggest rival. Amazon Prime perhaps? HBO Go?
Neither, he said.
“When you watch a show from Netflix and you get addicted to it, you stay up late at night. We’re competing with sleep.”
This did not go down well.
“He said they’re going to war!” says Matthew Walker, author of the 2017 worldwide bestseller Why We Sleep. “It felt very Game Of Thrones. Everybody was armouring themselves up to go to battle against sleep. I think it’s a disgrace. I think it’s a terrible disservice. And I’ll give you one good reason, because I believe that CEO has children.”
Three months ago, Walker says, he received an email from a father who lost his wife and youngest child in a drowsy-driving traffic accident. He wrote to Walker to praise his book and specifically the chapter that pointed out that a lack of sleep causes more fatalities on international roads than drugs and alcohol combined.
“So, you know, he can go out there and make these catchy clickbait public statements about going to war with sleep. But I suspect that if he returned home one evening and someone who’d been awake for 22 hours straight – at which point you are legally drunk in terms of your performance – had taken away some of his family members, I think he’d probably be less forthright about his battle against sleep.”
And don’t get them started on Netflix’s “auto-play” time of five seconds, which ensures, they will tell you, we don’t even have enough time to locate the remote before the next episode starts. “It used to be 15 seconds,” says Meadows. “It was too easy for people to turn off.”
An independent GQ study – I logged into Netflix – reveals this is not entirely accurate. Netflix Original shows now auto-play after five seconds, but the rest remain at a leisurely 15.
I asked Netflix about the discrepancy. The new five-second countdown, a spokesperson said, was “an innovation with our original content – we haven’t got there yet with licensed content”.
The spokesperson added, “Fun fact: if your line of thought is people get caught up watching great shows instead of sleeping, this is no different to the publishing industry and how for centuries people have chosen to pick up a new book, reading just one page, a few, or even the whole thing in one sitting!”
I point out that no one automatically turns the pages of a book for me. I do not hear back.
Still, Netflix is not the worst culprit. While BBC’s iPlayer remains at 15 seconds, Amazon Prime’s auto-play is a nerve-shredding two seconds: catching it in time is akin to returning a serve from Federer. (I asked Amazon to confirm it was two seconds. It refused to do so.)
And yet, as much as those in the sleep game see streaming services as the enemy, they do acknowledge the role other tech giants have played in fighting back. Apple, in particular, has realised the value in selling sleep, mostly via a range of functions that stop users using its devices – iOS 12, released last year, included features that limit (Screen Time), cajole (Bedtime) and outright ban (Downtime).
Two years ago, Apple purchased Finnish sleep-tracking company Beddit for use in Apple Watches. The message seemed clear: Apple was Team Sleep.
And so, when you are sitting there wondering if you should keep watching or scrolling or simply go to bed, chances are you’re making a choice between the largest companies on earth: Netflix ($161bn value), Amazon ($1tn), YouTube (owned by Google: $743bn), Facebook ($478bn) and Twitter ($27bn) on the one hand and Apple ($1tn) on the other. At the same time, also remember this: their iPhone will be the first to ask for your eyes tomorrow.
Every creature sleeps – or at least something like it. Even worms, scientists have found, get shut-eye, despite having no eyes to shut. Prod a sleeping worm and it will not wriggle.
Elephants need half as much sleep as humans: just three to four hours. Tigers and lions, on the other hand, require 15. The brown bat is the real lazy loller of the animal kingdom, being awake for just five hours and snoozing through the other 19. Nothing helpfully guides it. You can be large or small, predator or prey, nocturnal or not – it doesn’t seem to matter.
But while every species sleeps, not every species dreams. In fact, only birds and mammals – the latecomers of the evolutionary timeline – have perchance to.
The outliers are aquatic mammals – dolphins and killer whales – who don’t. The reasons are obvious: during REM sleep the brain paralyses the body. This isn’t ideal if you have to come to the surface to breathe. Even non-REM sleep is tricky: they achieve it by being unihemispheric, meaning only half of their brain sleeps at any one time. The other side will then take over, like shift work.
Some animals, however, do have it both ways. The fur seal, which splits its time between land and sea, dreams only on land.
And some species, scientists suspect, may be starting to dream. Researchers think a particular Australian lizard may have begun to catch some REM, but, as reptiles are unable to fill in dream diaries no one can be entirely sure. Once, in 1969, scientists thought they caught a whale dreaming for exactly six minutes. We may never know what about.
Perhaps most remarkable is the case of the white-crowned sparrow. Most migrating birds have evolved the ability to sleep mid-flight using micro naps that last just a few seconds. Yet the white-crowned sparrow manages to stay awake all trip and suffer no ill effects – but only during the migratory period. The American military has spent millions studying it with the hope of creating sleepless super soldiers. They are yet to succeed.
Our current idea of sleep – eight hours and done – is a relatively new one. Ask any sleep researcher and they will tell you we actually have two sleep periods built into our circadian rhythms, or natural sleep cycles: a large one at night, then a smaller one just after lunch. This is why our energy dips in the early afternoon. All hunter-gatherer tribes we’ve come across sleep this way: after all, early afternoon is often too hot to hunt. The Romans were big fans – it’s from them we get the word “siesta” – as are most Spanish-speaking countries today.
In Japan, some companies are currently attempting to revive the idea by introducing sleep pods at work, though this is likely not unrelated to the fact that Japanese employees are so overworked and exhausted they’ve taken to falling asleep everywhere: on the train, at work, during dinner, just as they’re about to start a sentence. The practice is so widespread that the Japanese even have a name for it: “inemuri”, which means “sleeping while present”. It is considered a badge of honour.
And yet, barring the odd aberration – in the late 17th and early 18th centuries Western Europeans slept in two nighttime spells separated by several hours of wakefulness in the middle, during which they would read, write, pray or whatever and literally no one has any idea why – a single wodge of sleep is what we’ve settled on.
Even here, though, not all sleepers are the same. In 2009, scientists located a rare genetic mutation – carried by around one to three percent of the population – that saw some people sleep less than six hours a night with no adverse effects whatsoever. Less lucky were those for whom the same mutation saw them require 12 hours each night and so have to hit the hay as soon as they’re home from work.
Most startling, though, researchers later found that of every 100 people who claimed to get by just fine on less than six hours, only five carried the mutation and actually did.
Margaret Thatcher famously boasted of getting just four hours a night. But mention this to a sleep expert and many will point out how regularly getting too little sleep dramatically increases your risk of dementia, a condition Thatcher would die with. Ken Clarke has even said he noticed signs of it when Thatcher was still in office. We should perhaps all worry about Donald Trump’s similar boast.
And we don’t all sleep at the same time. Ever wondered why 40 percent of the population are larks, 30 percent owls, with the remaining 30 percent somewhere in the middle? Evolutionarily speaking, this makes sense: all the better to have a group sleeping slightly different shifts to minimise vulnerability to predators. Yet our current office work hours foist early starts upon everyone. This creates problems.
It “punishes owls and favours larks”, writes Walker in Why We Sleep, as by the time owls reach their mental peak – in the late afternoon – they’re told the work day is done. Owls must “wake up with the larks but [are] not able to fall asleep until far later in the evening” and are often underslept as a result. If you’re in this third of the population, unlucky: you have a higher risk of depression, anxiety, diabetes, cancer, heart attacks and strokes. It’s a lark’s world: owls just sleep in it.
Here is a list of the various devices, gadgets, lamps, apps, earplugs, blankets, trackers and, in one instance at least, creepy sleep robots that I will invite into my bedroom while writing this story.
I read using a SomniLight Amber Book Lamp (“specifically designed to mimic the amber wavelength of candlelight without sacrificing the safety and convenience of modern lighting”, $38). By my bed sits a Philips Somneo Wake-Up Light, which mimics the rise and fall of the sun (“with light-guided breathing and personalised sun settings”, $242). Splaying me to my mattress is a Mela Comfort weighted blanket (swaddle, baby, etc, from $160), while below me is a Withings Sleep Tracking Mat (“offers sleep cycle analysis, heart-rate tracking and snore detection”, $127). I use a pillow from Nanu that’s been created just for me based on an algorithm (“designed by you, made by Nanu”, $38). I wear Tom Brady TB12 Under Armour Athlete Recovery pyjamas (“the key is the ‘far infrared’ print inside... Far infrared is a type of energy that benefits the human body”, from $54). In my ears are Bose Noise-Masking Sleepbuds (“sleep better. Cover unwanted noise with soothing sounds”, $290). On my finger sits an Oura Ring sleep tracker, sampling my pulse 250 times per second (“you learn your optimal times to move, eat and take a break to get that restorative sleep”, $355). Every night an app called Sleepzy attempts to nag me to bed at 10.45pm. I use the Somnox Sleep Robot exactly twice (“by using breathing regulation, sounds and affection, the Sleep Robot offers...”, $700).
As a rule of thumb, the more high-tech something was, the less useful I found it. Did I like the way the weighted blanket pinned me down and actually, weirdly, calmed me while doing so? I did. Do I slightly suspect it’s because my brain thought I was trapped somewhere – under a collapsed building, say – and it was actually the calm serenity you get just before death? I do.
I woke better when the Somneo light woke me. I slept quicker when using the amber book lamp to read. The pillow was comfy. I can offer no opinion on the pyjamas other than the fact they are pyjamas.
I didn’t entirely understand the Bose Sleepbuds (have you always wanted to go to sleep to spa music only you can hear? These are the $290 buds for you!), but I suspect that’s because I live on a quiet road. I was willing to learn, however, so I asked Brian Mulcahey, category director of sleep at Bose, why the audio firm felt the need to get into the business of sleep. Most simply, he says, it realised it was becoming a “mega trend” – something investment company BlackRock helpfully defines as “powerful, transformative forces that could change the global economy, business and society. Think electricity, automobiles, the internet.” But also, he says, it was personal: “I run marathons. I’ve run the Boston Marathon five times. My BMI is 20. I’m a pretty healthy guy. And I was in the category of getting five hours’ sleep for most of my adult life.” The research shocked him. “I run marathons and I eat salad and I’m going to die of cardiovascular disease!”
I do not dare, however, speak to the creators of the Somnox Sleep Robot – coming soon to all good stores and likely an episode of Black Mirror.
The Sleep Robot is the shape of a kidney bean, the size of a baby, is covered in fabric and makes a motion like it’s breathing. It comes with a blank birth certificate in the box. They want you to name it (“It took us nine months to create your new sleep companion, just like...”).
You’re supposed to spoon it: the idea is your breathing syncs and therefore slows. On the second night I dreamt it was trying to smother me, like a facehugger from Alien. It wasn’t for me.
As for the trackers – notably the ultra-advanced Oura Ring – they were equal parts fascinating and pointless. With the Oura Ring I could see everything on the accompanying app: how much REM I got the night before, how much light and deep sleep, my resting heart rate, my body temperature, my respiratory rate. Everything, that is, except how to make use of it all.
I meet the Oura Ring’s cofounder, Petteri Lahtela, in a Central London coffee shop while he is over from Finland for business. A few months earlier, the ring had received an unexpected PR boost when Prince Harry was snapped wearing one. Cue an avalanche of press – “Prince Harry’s Ring Sparks Interest In New Sleep Tracker” (NBC News), “Prince Harry Is Leading The Way In Tech’s Hot New Trend” (Evening Standard), “Why Harry’s New Ring Has An Oura Of Desperation About It” (The Guardian) – and a tenfold increase in sales.
Lahtela is reluctant to talk about any royal wearers, but a source tells me it was no passing fad: the prince had previously used the older, larger version of the Oura Ring, but only at night, so no one knew.
Focusing just on sleep, says Lahtela, misses the point. “The big driver was working on recovery. Sleep is the main thing for that. But you can do some things during the day as well that contribute.” Plus, worn enough, he says, the Oura Ring not only tells you your ideal bedtime, but can also predict diseases and disorders coming your way. Wouldn’t you rather know?
And yet, knowing has now become its own problem. Nearly every sleep expert I spoke to told me one of the biggest issues they currently face is the overuse of sleep trackers. The Oura Ring gives you a score every morning. People try to beat that score then get obsessed by it. Eventually, they worry about it so much they stop sleeping. Last year, sleep scientists even gave it a name: orthosomnia.
“My view of sleep trackers is slightly cynical,” says Dr Guy Leschziner, clinical lead for the Sleep Disorders Centre at Guy’s Hospital and author of The Nocturnal Brain. “If you’re not sleeping enough, you know that already. You don’t need a tracker to tell you.”
When patients see Meadows at The Sleep School, meanwhile, the first thing he does is tell them to stand their trackers down.
To get an alternative perspective, I meet Tim Gray, CEO of Health Optimisation Ltd and a self-described “biohacker”. Gray, 39, dresses like an off-duty Premier League footballer and reacts to my ordering a Coke as though I’d asked for a plutonium smoothie: “Ha! Did you just say Coke?”
I can’t have a Coke?
“No judgement, mate, have what you like. But you can put Coke on an engine and it cleans it. Imagine what it’s doing to your gut bacteria and your...”
I order an orange juice.
There are up to 18 specific things, Gray tells me, he does every day to optimise his sleep at night, a routine honed by endless experimentation and checked by his Oura Ring data the next morning.
He runs me through a typical day: wake up, glass of water with hypertonic (“which has 78 minerals, twice the concentration of blood”), no breakfast, “bulletproof” coffee (“with coconut oil, some collagen peptides in there to repair the gut lining”), lunch at 2pm (“I only eat in a six-to-eight-hour window”), dinner no later than three-and-a-half hours before bed (“otherwise I’m using energy to digest, [as] opposed to healing”), blue-blocking glasses for the last three hours (“You need to get away from blue light for the last four hours really”), 50-100 milligrams of supplement niacin in the last half hour (“It helps calm the brain”), bed at 11.30pm-11.45pm (when his Oura Ring recommends), Himalayan rock salt lamp next to the bed (“It keeps the air with the right ions”), a chilly pad under the bedsheet (“for body-temperature regulation”), an essential oil diffuser on the side (“which I put lavender in, depending on my goal”), natural latex pillow (“very supportive, based on my posture”), natural foam mattress (“so it’s not full of petrochemicals”), a hypoallergenic duvet, a red-light stack (“I have that on remote control”), a blackout blind (“so it’s completely black), a grounding bedsheet (“so you’re connecting with the earth”), silicon earplugs (“they work very well”) and then, finally, to sleep.
Does he get a perfect score? “Yeah, pretty much.” What doesn’t work? “Having a partner next to me.”
And yet, he says he purposefully doesn’t check his Oura Ring score first thing. “I don’t want to be told by my ring how I’ll feel that day. I don’t want to be primed by it.” And so, instead, he’ll meditate for seven minutes, make a bulletproof coffee, put his ring on charge “and then I’ll look at the score”.
Earlier this year I took a short walk to London’s Tottenham Court Road, where I was due to meet David Wolfe, the enjoyably gruff cofounder of Leesa Sleep mattresses, where we were due to go mattress shopping together.
Have you ever wondered why all mattresses now have women’s names (Leesa, Emma, Eve, etc), are promoted on podcasts and arrive in an impossibly small, upright box around an eighth of its size? Well, Wolfe is one of the mattress innovators you can thank. If you want to see where our current sleep gold rush began, you could do worse than start here. Wolfe cofounded Leesa, which is currently worth $102 million, four years ago. He describes an industry that was stagnant and complacent. One ripe for mattress disruption.
“It was a very antiquated industry,” he says. “Very little technology. Very little retail. It was an industry that had been sleeping... for want of a better word.”
Talk to any of the mattress upstarts and they will tell you something similar: that everything a shop used to sell you a mattress was nonsense. Side, front or back sleeper? Their research showed that during the night we all do all three. Hard, soft or medium? Just nonsense to get you through the door to lie on them. The new upstarts realised from their research that they could create a universal mattress. But the key innovation was the industrial origami of folding them into small boxes – done in two minutes by a machine that costs $637,000 and only when you click “buy” (leave it folded any longer than a few weeks, I’m told, and it’ll start to take on the shape of the box).
Suddenly, they didn’t need shops: mattresses could be posted! The sleep revolution was born.
In the States, when a company called Casper launched around the same time, in 2014, the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Ashton Kutcher, Nas and 50 Cent all invested, all realising they were lying on a gold mine. Casper is now valued at almost $1bn.
I later speak to one of Casper’s founders, Neil Parikh, over the phone, who mentions something key. One upshot of the 2008 financial crisis, he says, was that, in the following years, “It wasn’t cool to sleep four hours a night any more, you know? There used to be this whole banker culture, crushing it at work, 100-hour weeks, let’s brag about how little sleep we get. And we started to turn the curve on that. When we started in 2014, our goal was to think about people sleeping better. People resting more. We got people to start thinking about sleep.”
In May this year, not long after we spoke, The Pokémon Company announced a new game would be released in 2020. The company had already been widely praised for 2016’s Pokémon Go, the record-breaking app game that turned the act of walking into entertainment. Its next game would be Pokémon Sleep. It would reward your hours of rest.
Not long after that, in July, The Times reported on a leaked green paper that suggested the Department of Health and Social Care were also stepping in: they were planning to issue sleep guidance and recommended hours. The government was about to tell us to go to bed.
on a recent night, as I was trying to nod off, I considered trying one of the new “sleep sounds”, built in to Amazon’s Alexa speaker. As I decided between the likes of “rain on a tent”, “fireplace”, “space deck” and “wind”, I remembered what its developer, Nick Schwab, had told me was one of the most requested new sounds, one you might not suspect, a sound that, for as long as anyone can remember, has been the one that has kept us awake. “Snoring,” he told me. “People say their partners are away on a business trip and they miss hearing them. It’s kind of sweet.”