When And Why Did Sleep Science Become A Hot Topic?

From the myriad new sleep science advances seen already in 2019 to the perception of sleep as a commodity, sleep has become a truly hot topic among mainstream audiences. While industry readers might regularly keep their fingers on the pulse of sleep research, it seems consumers are finally waking up to the importance of sleep. With the regularity of new sleep science discoveries on the rise along with the general increase in buzz around sleep health, we thought we’d dig into the history of sleep science to determine the root of the field’s popularity today.

Here’s a brief primer on the history of sleep science research:

Although the humans of ancient civilizations did use techniques like divination and blood-letting to regulate sleep, and questions about the idea of circadian rhythms emerged in 1729, sleep science is still a relatively new discipline. It didn’t fully gain traction until the 19th century and only recently became its own medical concentration.

In 1924, a German scientist used an EEG for the first time only to realize that our brain waves look different when we are sleeping versus when we are awake. According to this article that chronicles the history of sleep medicine, “The development of modern Sleep Medicine is closely linked to the discovery of the electrical activity of the brain. [Richard] Caton was the first to record brain electrical activity of animals in England in 1875, but it was [Hans] Berger who discovered and reported the ‘electroencephalogram of man’ in Germany in 1929.” In the US in 1937, it was Alfred Lee Loomis who first recorded information on NREM sleep and divided sleep into stages.

According to this article from the Guardian, two scientists conducted an experiment to determine if humans have biological clocks by living in a cave for 32 days in 1938. While the study was not conclusive, it marks an early sleep experiment using humans to understand sleep cycle.

Since the late 1920’s and 30’s, sleep research and medicine has swiftly grown. Scientists have gone on to develop a deeper understanding of circadian rhythm, normal and abnormal sleep, the importance of sleep to other biological processes and much more.

According again to this particularly comprehensive chronicle of sleep history in the US, “advances in clinical and basic science sleep research have led to increasing recognition that disorders of sleep are highly prevalent, to a greater understanding of their pathophysiology and to the development of effective treatments for these conditions.” It’s also lead to the development of standards, societies, associations, journals and more supporting the study of sleep.

Today sleep science has become so prevalent that colleges like Stanford offer whole divisions of sleep medicine and manufacturers regularly enlist sleep scientists and experts to help develop healthier products. We’ve gained more sophisticated tools to help us sleep and more advanced processes for studying sleep and sussing out disorders. Each year we learn more and more ways that sleep deprivation can set us back. But it does feel that the last five to seven years have yielded a new and urgent interest in sleep not just among niche bedding manufacturing and sleep science communities, but among everyday people too. So where does that come from?

Here’s a few reasons for the rise in popularity over the past few years:

We can’t necessarily say for sure why sleep has become ‘cool’ and dare we say ‘trendy’ in the past few years, but there are a handful of reasons that might contribute to the moment sleep seems to be having.

People don’t get as much sleep as they used to.

According to Science News, nearly a third of American adults get less than six hours of sleep per night. The article goes on to explain the statistic,“Among nearly 400,000 respondents to the annual National Health Interview Survey, 32.9 percent reported this short sleep in 2017 — up from 28.6 percent in 2004 when researchers began noticing a slight drop in sleep time.”

Perhaps the popularity of sleep has grown because people are having trouble attaining it. While we don’t yet fully understand why we sleep, we do know how critical it is to our daily functioning. The article cited above attributes sleep loss in part, to cell phones and other technologies. But, it’s not just tech that’s to blame.

We understand that sleep is linked with productivity.

Society’s obsession with work is facing a backlash right now. With some studies showing that work days would be better on more of a 10 am to 6 pm schedule and others showing that productivity times vary from person to person based on chronotype, regular people are trying to tune in to what makes them the most successful at work and in life. As such, workplaces are re-evaluating their rules to help employees be more efficient.

There’s also a general understanding that losing sleep for work doesn’t get us ahead in the long run. Sleep is required for recovery—both mental and physical. Science also proves that getting the requisite amount of sleep (for our individual needs) helps us perform better in general.

Sleep is being framed as both a luxury and a marker of success.

Sleep is part of the larger movement around health and wellness—which is both a beneficial trend and one with a price tag. This Self article proclaimed in 2017, “wellness sells, and Americans are buying” and the same might be said of sleep in 2019.

In an article from the New York Times entitled, ‘Sleep Is The New Status Symbol’, the writer hypothesizes, “If sleep used to be the new sex, as Marian Salzman, a trend spotter and chief executive of Havas PR North America, proclaimed 10 years ago, today it is a measure of success — a skill to be cultivated and nourished — as a ‘human potential enhancer,’ as one West Coast entrepreneur told me, and life extender.”

While the discipline of sleep science certainly supports the power of sleep, what the article really gets at with its detailed chronicle of sleep entrepreneurship is how marketers and product developers have taken the vital necessity of sleep and used it to sell products. By leveraging consumers’ stress about not getting enough sleep, these companies have reframed sleep as a marker of success—and designed sleep tech to be elite commodities.

An article from the Guardian insightfully comments on a quote from Arianna Huffington by saying,“‘Sleep is one of humanity’s great unifiers,’ writes Huffington in one of her many articles about sleep. But while the need for sleep may be one of humanity’s unifiers, the ability to actually get a good night’s sleep is emblematic of society’s great divisions.” This particular article conveys a similarly compelling argument that quality sleep often comes with a price-tag—one that often makes it unattainable for marginalized people.

For retailers and manufacturers, it might be challenging to resist hyping new and exciting sleep science discoveries to sell product. But those that are leading the way are approaching the market as educators—and developing useful products that genuinely aim to be accessible and improve lives.

We are excited to see what additional sleep science breakthroughs 2019 yields and the way in which our societal perception of sleep continues to evolve—and perhaps how quality sleep will move from being an elite commodity to something anyone can regularly achieve.


This article originally appeared in Sleep Retailer eNews on February 21, 2019.

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