Sleep — or Lack of It — Becomes Marketer's Dream From horsehair and foam mattresses to drugs to sleep therapy, American merchants are trying to profit from sleep-related products in the way that diet and exercise products have paid off. Jon Mooallem talks about his New York Times story on the "sleep industrial complex."

Sleep — or Lack of It — Becomes Marketer's Dream

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Cervantes wrote: blessing on him that invented sleep. It covers a man - thought and all - like a cloak. It is meat for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, heat for the cold, and cold for the hot. But sleep is not as advertized for most Americans. So - this being America - new products are being advertized that promise to make you a satisfied sleeper and a repeat customer.

Jon Mooallem writes about mattress, Z drugs, and other products that promise to put you to sleep in a story in today's New York Times magazine that will not put you to sleep. It's called the sleep industrial complex. Mooallem writes that folks at select comforts are onto a good thing with their sleep number bed.

Mr. JON MOOALLEM (Writer): The bed that they're selling - this air-filled bed that you can sort of inflate each half to, you know, just the right level of firmness or softness is one of many kinds of beds that's really popular now that they call alternative bedding. And it's beds that are not made of the same steel springs that, basically, American have been sleeping for a hundred years or more.

And those kinds of beds, they really changed a lot in the industry. And you've had a lot of ripple effects in terms of both the way, you know, they're made and the way they're marketed.

HANSEN: In the mattress industry as a whole, they don't seem to be cashing on in this new idea that consumers need a certain kind of mattress in order to get effective sleep.

Mr. MOOALLEM: I think they really feel like they've been skipped over in a lot of this. You know, somehow, the link to thinking that buying a better mattress is going to help you do that. Just people really haven't made that yet. And so I think the mattress industry is really trying to engage consumers in a, you know, argument to say we are selling something that can help you.

HANSEN: The way that humans sleep - talk about it in terms of the popularity of the sleeping pills - the Ambien and the Lunesta, and they are being advertized on television. And their effect seems to be, what the anthropologist calls and what you talked about in your article, the lie-down-and-die way of sleeping and it works because it makes people forget. It works around these concepts of amnesia.

Mr. MOOALLEM: Well, that's one theory. I mean, there's - I talk about one Ambien study where the improvements were pretty meager. You know, people taking Ambien spent 88 percent of their time to sleep versus 82 percent of their time in bed asleep, which, over eight hours, would be about, I think, less than 30 minutes. And it's not just Ambien. You know, that's pretty common results for most sleeping pill studies. There were also just some recent surveys of many, many studies that showed people fell asleep 12 minutes faster on average in all these studies and had 11 minutes more sleep.

And so, the mystery is given that the improvements are usually that small, why is that people in these studies also report feeling that they've slept so much better. Something seems to be out of whack. There seems to be a dissonance there. And one explanation is that because many of these drugs are known to block the formation of memory as you take them, they create this kind of amnesia, this kind of nighttime amnesia, that's changing your subjective impression of how you slept.

So you think about, you know, how do you know that you've slept well. You can gauge it by absence. You know that you weren't rolling. You know that you weren't up thinking, you know, that you weren't too hot or too cold. And you know, as one psychologist or neurologist put it to me, the amnesia can kind of knock all of these things out and just sort of, you know, erase it so that, you know, you think well. I went to bed at 10:15 and now it's seven in the morning and I don't remember anything, so I must have slept, you know, really great.

So that is one theory out there. I mean, the other theory is just that the pills are doing something, you know, in a physiological level that the clinicians just don't realize they should be measuring. And we just don't know what it is.

HANSEN: Mm-hmm. Do you think human sabotage sleep? I mean, the whole idea that we're afraid, we're not going to get the sleep, produces that reaction, that any fear producer? I mean, you end up getting worked up about wanting to go to sleep.

Mr. MOOALLEM: Yeah, I think that does, in fact, literally happen, you know, according to many of the therapists I talked to. One put it pretty simply. He said, you know, with sleep, the harder you try, the worse you do. It really does seem like the expectations are pretty unbendable and they're - in ways, they're unrealistic.

You mentioned this anthropologist who calls it the lie-down-and-die model. You climb into bed, you turn off the light, you close your eyes and then, you know, next thing you know it, it's the morning. And that's not really the way it seems people sleep in many other parts of the world and the way people slept even in America in the past.

HANSEN: How did they sleep?

Mr. MOOALLEM: Well, I talked to one historian named Roger Ekkerchin(ph). One thing that he found is you know, hundreds - I think maybe even thousands, of references to what he calls a segmented pattern of sleep, where, basically, people would go to bed and then in the middle of the night, they'd get up and do something for an hour or so. Some people would just sort of lie there are and talk. Or some doctors recommended that people have sex during that time because they thought women might conceive more easily then.

Some people would go out and work or tend to their animals and then they'd go back to bed. So the idea that sleep is the sort of on/off phenomenon in that, it's this one interrupted block. It's not something that is, you know, universal or even really historically accurate.

HANSEN: Hmm. So after all the research you did for this article, have you changed your approach at all to getting yourself a good night sleep?

Mr. MOOALLEM: Yeah. I guess I have, actually. I mean, for example, the last night I woke up, you know, early in the morning. And I think, in the past, I might have sort of jolted up and looked at the clock, and just had a sinking feeling like, you know, no. What am I going to do now. There's a big difference in being in that situation and just sort of dreading having to wait until the sun comes up versus just sort of trusting that your body will put you back to sleep.

HANSEN: Jon Mooallem's story about the business of sleep is called "The Sleep Industrial Complex." It's the cover story of today's New York Times magazine. And he joined us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco.

Jon, thanks a lot.

Mr. MOOALLEM: Thank you.

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