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Sleep in the age of anxiety

People were having trouble sleeping even before the pandemic. New technologies are here that claim to track and induce better sleep.
Illustration by Hoi Chan
  • The big idea

    People were having trouble sleeping even before the pandemic. New technologies are here that claim to track and induce better sleep.

    Image copyright: Illustration by Hoi Chan
  • By the digits

    7: Minimum hours of sleep adults need each night, according to the CDC

    40%: People in 13 countries who had trouble sleeping during the pandemic, according to a review study

    58%: Rise in US google searches for insomnia during the first five months of 2020

    35%: Adults who say they got less than seven hours of sleep per night, according to a 2014 (pre-pandemic) CDC study

    $8,000: Cost of a King-sized split smart bed from ReST that tracks your sleep and automatically adjusts to changes in pressure

    $12.5 billion: Value of the smart sleep market in 2020

    $40.6 billion: Anticipated value of the smart sleep market in 2027

  • Explain it like I’m 5!

    So why can’t I sleep, exactly? 

    There’s never just one reason why people can’t sleep. Among the multitude of factors that have been blamed for our inability to sleep are stress, anxiety, caffeine, the news, alcohol, social media, working too much, not having work to do, and blue light—all of which are, arguably, artifacts of our productivity-obsessed culture. For most people, cutting them out entirely is near impossible because they’re so baked into the way we live.

    Sleeplessness was already at what the World Health Organization called “epidemic” levels even before Covid-19, but the pandemic has made those feelings more widespread and intense, which can lead to a condition some health experts have termed “coronasomnia.”

    Therapy and medication are the gold standard of treatment for sleeplessness. But in recent years, there’s been an explosion of gadgets and apps promising better sleep through technology.

    Read more here.

  • Charting why economic losses from sleep deprivation

    That groggy, I-need-coffee feeling you get after a night of not sleeping enough? There’s a real economic cost to it.

    Read more here.

  • Tech enters the chat

    If you’ve ever found yourself frantically scrolling through Google for insomnia hacks at 3am, the appeal of sleep tech is obvious: the promise of instant sleep is impossible to ignore. And while sleep tech will probably never take the place of a trained therapist, there is room for some gadgets, especially those designed by scientists or with scientific principles in mind, to work in tandem with current methods to lead to better sleep.

    Sleep gadgets generally fit into two broad categories:

    Sleep trackers

    What they’re supposed to do: Track metrics associated with sleep and serve them to the user.

    Upsides: Some kinds of sleep trackers are pretty good at detecting metrics like heart rate and breathing, movement, time spent sleeping, disturbances throughout the night, and time spent in different stages of sleep.

    Downsides: Most people don’t know what to do with the devices’ information


    📱 Apps

    💍 Wearables (Oura ring, FitBit)

    👂 Movement and auditory sensors (Amazon’s Alexa-powered Sleeptracker)

    🛏️ Smart beds (ReST, Eight Sleep Pod)

    Sleep augmenters 

    What they’re supposed to do: Apps and gadgets that claim to make you fall asleep faster and get a better night’s rest, including optimizing sleeping conditions.

    Upsides: Many of them are based on science

    Downsides: Most are still too new to be proven effective


    💡 Customizable lighting (Philips Smartsleep, Casper Glow Light)

    🎧 Soothing sounds (white noise machines, playlists, noise-canceling headphones)

    💆 Devices that monitor brain activity and guide it towards calm (FocusCalm and Muse headbands)

    🤖 Cuddly robots that encourage a person to slow their breathing (Somnox sleep robot)

    Read more here.

  • Watch this

    Jane Evans feels great after five hours of sleep each night. Now scientists are studying people like Evans in an effort to help those of us who need more sleep and have trouble getting it.

    Watch here.

  • Fun fact!

    The way humans evolved, certain frequencies of light set our circadian rhythms (the body’s 24-hour internal clock that regulates sleep and other processes). We’re used to more blue and green wavelengths in the day, and more red at night.

    But the way we live now tends to scramble that natural inclination. Our screens, which we stare at during many of our waking hours, emit blue light, which wakes us up (screen time has been connected to sleep problems). And we never fully get the “quiet down” signal because we don’t go to bed with the sun, instead staying up past dark with our artificial lights.

    “We’ve sort of made the night optional,” says Michael Grandner, director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona. Darkness might be optional, but sleep certainly isn’t.

  • DIY

    Want a quick way to sleep better? In a world where constant stimulation is the norm, being deliberate about carving out peace and quiet is paramount for good sleep.

    📵 Keep electronic devices out of the bedroom

    🕯️ Have a consistent nighttime routine

    🍷 Avoid big meals and alcohol before bed

  • Keep reading

    What is sleep, even? Go deep on the biology of sleep.  

    All the ways bad sleep is hurting you. A neurologist breaks down what suffers when we don’t sleep well (hint: it’s a lot of important stuff). 

    Economists have finally measured the connection between unemployment and sleep loss. When work stress gets to you, it’s easy to think you’d sleep better if you just had more time. But that’s not what a recent study found.  

    Quartz Presents: The future of sleep. Hundreds of startups and billions of dollars are coming together to try to help people get a better night’s rest. This Quartz presentation explores those businesses and how they’re changing the future of sleep. 

    What if your employer paid you to exercise and sleep? Inside one startup’s wellness experiment. Making money while sleeping? That’s the dream.