The Sleep Industry: Why We’re Paying Big Bucks for Something That’s Free

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Sleep is one of life’s great free pleasures. Yet apparently many consumers feel they have to drop a lot of money in order to get a good night’s rest. Spending related to sleep has increased 8.8% annually since 2008, reaching about $32 billion in 2012. Is it time to wake up?

First, let’s acknowledge that many of you might be better off taking a nap than reading this article. Last year, 73% of American Internet users went online to research health information, and 43% looked specifically for sleep remedies. According to the National Sleep Foundation, only 56% of Americans say they get a “good night’s sleep” on a typical work or school night. Problems associated with sleep deficiencies extend well beyond fatigue and crankiness. Recent sleep studies have linked insufficient sleep to a host of problems including hypertension, depression, anxiety, diabetes, improper immune functioning, forgetfulness, clumsiness, jumpiness and even things like teen sports injuries.

Obviously, sleep is important. Whether it’s necessary to cough up big bucks to improve sleep is more debatable. Why do consumers feel they must spend to sleep better? Let’s take a look at a few of the reasons, as well as a few of the things people are buying to battle insomnia and counteract the side effects of insufficient rest:

We Love the Idea of a Quick Fix
Being tired or having trouble sleeping seem like simple problems, so it’s natural for consumers to resort to solutions that seem quick and simple. Younger consumers especially have grown up in an era of brilliant innovation in consumer goods. Advancements in technology (and marketing) have given them faith in the power of purchases to quickly fix problems in their lives.

For many, the idea of “listening to your body” is only for the pharmaceutically challenged. Sleep is just another task to be managed. Sara, a waitress and San Francisco State University undergrad student, alternates between drinks that aid sleep and alertness (Neuro Sleep and 5-Hour Energy, respectively) when the time is right. “I need something during the day” to stay energized, she told me, “but it’s hard to fall asleep after I’ve been waitressing.” Sara said most of her friends also jump back and forth between energy products and sleep aids to compensate for “too much to do.”

Young adults like Sara are largely responsible for supercharged sales of energy drinks such as Red Bull, 5-Hour Energy, Rockstar and Monster. In 2012, sales of energy drinks grew 19%. (The annual number of ER visits due to energy-drink consumption doubled over the past four years as well.)

(MORE: Don’t Nap on This: Why the Business of Sleep Will Keep Booming)

As consumers feel more comfortable gulping down a little liquid stimulation, so too are they embracing the idea of drinks that help you sleep. The two product categories seem to feed off of each other, with increased usage for each growing directly because of the other’s growth.

Sleep-aid concoctions are selling especially well if they’re perceived to have some science behind them. Neuro Sleep, for instance, sounds like something cooked up in a lab and is marketed with a heavy dose of scientific words (“melatonin mixed with magnesium”). Still, the Neuro Sleep website comes with the warning: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

We Feel the Need to Do Something
To sleep well, you must literally do nothing. But doing nothing doesn’t sit well with many people who are confronted with a problem. When problems arise, we feel we must do something about them. People who think they have difficulty sleeping look to the marketplace for solutions. Just by taking action, some anxiety is calmed. We feel better because we’ve done something, as opposed to sitting back and allowing the problem to fester. It may not even matter what the person buys; simply by doing something about the problem, the anxiety that normally keeps the person up at night may be relieved, resulting in a better night’s sleep.

(MORE: Why Shoppers Just Can’t Resist Clearance Sales)

Just as consumers are willing to try almost anything and spend exorbitantly in order to lose weight, many are game to give almost any “solution” a shot to achieve a good night’s rest. It’s these folks who give manufacturers and product marketers good reason to constantly launch new sleep remedies that include sleep-monitoring devices, aromatherapy, teas, supplements, botanicals, balms, bath salts and over-the-counter sedatives in new formulations like tongue strips. There is plenty of money to be made. While overall sales of mattresses have been sluggish throughout the recession era, the opposite is true of more expensive specialty mattresses. Sales of high-end brands like Tempur-Pedic and Select Comfort have skyrocketed over the past few years.

We Just Want to Do What’s ‘Natural’
From 2006 to 2011, the market for over-the-counter sleep aids grew 31%. Within this market, the biggest growth category has been for natural and homeopathic products. From functional foods like melatonin-rich cherries to valerian and passionflower, consumers are on the hunt for natural solutions — as opposed to prescription sleep medications, which they seem wary of.

Interestingly enough, natural is a buzz word in the “stay awake” product category too. Starbucks new Refreshers line boasts “natural energy” from green coffee beans, for instance, while Jamba Juice recently introduced an “all-natural energy drink” line.

(MORE: Herbalife Defends Itself Against Pyramid Allegations, but Does the Market Believe?)

For some people, one of the many possible sleep “solutions” indeed proves to be a solution that helps them sleep better. It’s been shown that a good mattress will certainly improve your sleep, for instance. Other products can aid sleep as well, though individual results vary widely. But before spending good money on sleep remedies of dubious value, it’s wise to first try a few of these time-tested tips, none of which cost a dime:

1. Stick to a routine. Train your body by going to sleep and getting up at the same time every day.

2. Don’t multitask in bed. Associations are powerful. Use your bed for only sleep and sex in order to create a link between your bed and sleep. Nearly 40% of Americans use their cell phones in bed, including 72% of teens (which helps explain why 25% of teens get fewer than 6.5 hours of sleep a night).

3. Get rid of distractions. Make sure your room is cool, dark and quiet all night long. The “blue light” display of most computers, tablets and cell phones mocks daylight and suppresses melatonin. If necessary, get a sleep mask and earplugs. Keep your bed tidy too.

4. Clear your mind. Focus on your breathing and count “one” as you breathe in and “two” as you breathe out. Don’t count any higher. Just go back and forth with one and two because people inadvertently stay alert keeping track of higher numbers.

5. Keep a notepad handy. If you’re the kind of person who stays awake ruminating, put the intrusive thoughts down on paper. That way, you can let them go until the morning rather than stressing about them while you’re not falling asleep.

6. Avoid stimulants close to bedtime. Stop drinking caffeine by around noon, and exercise as early in the day as possible.

7. Power down. People who text and use their computers an hour before bedtime get fewer hours of sleep, are less likely to get quality sleep and are less likely to wake up refreshed.

Kit Yarrow chairs the psychology department of Golden Gate University and was named the university’s 2012 Outstanding Scholar for her research in consumer behavior. She is a co-author of Gen BuY and is a frequent speaker on topics related to consumer psychology and Generation Y.