Adults aren’t immune to sleep’s domino effect on every bodily function either; not for nothing is sleep deprivation a popular torture method. “In the head of the interrogated prisoner… he has one sole desire: to sleep. Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it,” wrote former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, on being a political prisoner of the KGB (Russia’s spy agency) in Soviet Russia.
Sleep’s cyclical nature is something to behold. It’s at night that the brain truly comes into its own after retreating from the sensory overload of the day. It decides which memories to keep and which ones to junk in stages one and two. It then kicks deep sleep (stages three and four) into gear, prodding cells to secrete growth hormone. Deep sleep is also when the brain literally cleans the house.
“Neurons in the brain, densely packed during the daytime, expand at night. This is so that accumulated metabolites (cellular metabolic waste) can be flushed out,” Dr. Jha explains. “The spaces between these neurons then become like roads after dark. It’s like going on a long drive at night versus driving in the day.”
Our body cools and breathing slows during deep sleep before we wake briefly, only to be taken through REM sleep. This is when we dream. This is when our eyelids flutter, moods are regulated, protein synthesis reaches its peak, and bodies reach their lowest temperature. This is when our breathing becomes shallow. This is when the brain is free to play.
Non-REM and REM sleep together forms ‘sleep architecture’, so-called because it resembles city skylines on a hypnogram. Think of a sleep graph, measured on polysomnography machines. “Each stage lasts a certain duration and is repeated a number of times at night,” says Dr. HN Mallick, president of the Indian Society of Sleep Research (ISSR). “Inadequate or poor-quality sleep affects this architecture. Which we’re seeing a lot more of.”
OSA or sleep apnea is the most visible sleep disorder. Yet, there’s just 1% market penetration for diagnostic and therapy equipment in India, where an estimated 50 million people have the condition. Again, no official figures are available for OSA.
Now, consider that research on understanding sleep, rather than sleep disorders, is even more nascent. Philips India, an arm of global conglomerate Royal Philips, alone has 500-plus sleep labs to develop iterations of its Respironics line of devices like continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines. These are some in a host of offerings to help patients with breathing problems sleep better. Compare this to just five labs (in JNU and All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bengaluru, Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology in Thiruvananthapuram, and Lucknow’s King George’s Medical University) fully involved in researching the mental and physiological repercussions of sleep deprivation.
“India’s sleep labs are focused on clinical solutions for disorders because that’s where the money is,” says Dr Mallick.
When data on sleep evolution is virtually nonexistent, it’s easy to make hay while the sleep economy shines. Nowhere is this more evident than in the mattress market.
In 2014, entrepreneur Philip Krim launched Casper, a direct-to-consumer mattress-in-a-box that attracted investors like Leonardo DiCaprio and a rash of other celebrities. The company did something genius; it never claimed to better sleep but instead, made mattress-buying mighty convenient. Casper’s “obsessively engineered” minimalist aesthetic — created by Japanese designer Gen Suzuki — a low price point, and a 100-day trial period (a) turned it into a $1.1 billion company, and (b) inspired clones in both the US and India.
India has six ‘sleep startups’, all focused on bedding. Think spring and foam isn’t technology enough? Bourgeois mattress-makers want you to believe otherwise. If India had a modern history timeline of the mattress, it’d read like this: bare-bone kshatriyas (cots), lumpy cotton Gaddis (mattresses), coir mattresses, spring Kurl-Ons and Duroflexes, and PU foam and latex bedding. Branded variants make up 34% of India’s $1.7-billion mattress market. This number is expected to rise in contexts where people don’t think twice about renting mattresses, or paying more for proclaimed patented technology to keep bedding cool.