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Welcome to the restless era of commercialized sleep

Weighted blankets, tracking apps, and tiny humidifiers are crowding bedrooms across America.

Emily Tharp's nightstand is crowded with items to help her sleep, ranging from an eye mask, sleep supplements, pillow sprays and essential oils. The retail sleep aid industry is booming over the last couple years as more consumers focus on sleep as part of overall wellness.
Emily Tharp's nightstand is crowded with items to help her sleep, ranging from an eye mask, sleep supplements, pillow sprays and essential oils. The retail sleep aid industry is booming over the last couple years as more consumers focus on sleep as part of overall wellness.Read moreEmily Tharp

Ever lie in bed, completely restless, thinking for hours on end about how you’re lying in bed, completely restless?

Compound that with the stress of your Fitbit reading — you’re averaging only one-quarter of the night in a state of deep sleep? — and you may have what some doctors are calling “orthosomnia," a very real, new type of condition brought on by obsessing over sleep tracker data.

But don’t worry. There’s a whole industry to help. You can buy products ranging from essential oil diffusers and lavender sprays to temperature-regulating pillows and $250 Bose earbuds made specially for sleeping. Don’t forget: Weighted blankets were the hot holiday gift, and Pokémon Go is developing a new app that “rewards good sleep habits."

This commercialization of sleep is all part of a bigger cultural emphasis on wellness, whether that’s stretching, skin care, or snoozing, the last of which has been disrupted by today’s endless screen time, stimulating our senses more than ever before.

But what does this booming sleep-aid industry mean for consumers in desperate need of some shut-eye?

“All this gear and gadgets is because we’re great consumers, and what we want to do is get something to help us,” said Nancy Rothstein, a corporate consultant based in Chicago and known as “the Sleep Ambassador.” “It’s not going to happen until you really sit back and address your sleep habits. Otherwise you’re just buying, buying, buying, and nothing is going to resolve it.”

Most doctors say folks struggling with sleeplessness should use what works best for them, but consumers should know that even as technology advances, the advice from experts on what constitutes good sleeping habits hasn’t changed in years: Stick to a routine. Sleep in a cool, dark room. Leave your phone out of sight. Avoid screens, booze, and big meals just before bed. Go to another dimly lit room if you can’t fall asleep.

Emily Tharp, a 30-year-old Philadelphia lifestyle blogger, knows this. She’s long had trouble staying asleep and bought an old-school alarm clock about a year ago so she wouldn’t need to keep her phone next to her while she slept.

That didn’t last. She gave the alarm clock away a couple of months later and, like so many other people, has been incapable of keeping her phone out of her bedroom.

Enter products. Today, she uses “Relax Melodies,” a free app that plays custom sounds (hers is a mix of a crowd, a highway, “urban rain,” and “city ambiance”) and she rotates among several lavender pillow sprays. She also just got a weighted blanket for her birthday, and right before bed, she dabs a little essential oil on her wrists or just sniffs the bottle.

“It relaxes me, but it also gives me permission,” she said. “It’s sort of like, the day is done. This is the time for you to go to bed.”

Tharp has considered going to see a sleep doctor. Lucky for her, she’s in Philadelphia, home to Penn Sleep Medicine. But for insomniacs and those with sleep disorders in rural and some suburban areas, access to specialized sleep care is much lower.

There are fewer than 10,000 board-certified sleep doctors in the country, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one-third of American adults get less than the recommended seven hours per night and more than 50 million suffer from a sleep disorder.

That’s left a void that can be filled by the Apples and the Fitbits of the world, said Ilene Rosen, a professor of clinical medicine at Penn and the former president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

She said she struggles with evaluating sleep-quality data from patients who use sleep-tracking devices because she doesn’t know what goes into the algorithms (though she expects physicians will have more information in the future about what’s behind that information). But when it comes to products such as white noise machines and weighted blankets, “if it’s working, go ahead if you have the money," she said. "It’s a luxury.”

That means a good night of sleep — or the gadgets to make it happen — can be something of a status symbol, especially if your bedroom is decked out with the Gravity Blanket ($249), a seemingly made-for-Instagram iteration of weighted blankets that have been used to reduce stress and anxiety in special-needs communities for decades.

Or Moona ($299), a self-regulating pillow pad that changes temperature through the night (cooler temps are better for falling asleep; slowly adding heat wakes you up gently). Or the “Glow Light” ($129), an app-connected lamp that its developer, the sleep-product company Casper, says is “a magical light for better sleep.”

The sleep-aid industry has grown every year since the recession, and last year was valued at nearly $30 billion, according to Marketdata, a market research firm based in Tampa, Fla., that specializes in tracking service sectors. The firm expects the sleep market — which includes some retail sleep aids but is still dominated by prescription drugs and mattress sales — to grow at an average 5 percent annually over the next five years.

“People are craving sleep, and when you’re craving something, you will do anything to get it,” Rothstein said. “Everyone’s a consumer of sleep. But the question is: What do they need to consume to get it?”

For years, the answer to that was sleeping pills. Between 1994 and 2007, prescriptions for a class of drugs that induce sleep (Ambien, Sonata, and Lunesta) increased 30-fold, far outpacing the also-notable uptick in office visits for sleeplessness and insomnia diagnoses, according to a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Experts in sleep said attitudes toward those drugs, though, are shifting. Marketdata found that at the same time there’s been a decline in prescription sleep aids’ dollar value over the last several years, there’s been an increase in sales of over-the-counter aids. Physicians said more patients are first trying non-habit-forming supplements or even just drinking a mug of chamomile tea before bed rather than begging their doctor for a prescription.

Zachary Wilcha, a 41-year-old nonprofit director who lives in the city’s Callowhill section, said that for about the last year, he’s eaten Olly Sleep gummies right before bed. The supplements have ingredients including melatonin, a hormone with a mellowing effect, and other botanicals and acids found naturally in things like tea and mushrooms.

And recently, he and his partner jumped on the weighted-blanket bandwagon, grabbing a 20-pound cover from Target. Wilcha really likes the pressure of it, and said it feels “like a hug when you’re sleeping.” There’s just one problem.

“It makes my partner feel like he’s going to die,” he said.

The good news is whether you’re using a heavy blanket or expensive tech, your insomnia might just go away on its own. Rosen said 85 to 90 percent of people experiencing insomnia get better in two to four weeks. But if there’s no improvement after a couple of months, consider seeing a doctor or sleep specialist.

She said: “You shouldn’t suffer for a long time.”