Why Americans Can’t Sleep

People are desperate for shut-eye, and turning to drugs, supplements, and high-tech gadgets for help

Sleeplessness has a long and tortured history. A 15th-century Italian lawyer named Hippolytus de Marsiliis is said to have first documented sleep deprivation as a way to punish prisoners. (If you’re unconvinced by his cred, note that he is the same fellow credited with confirming the effectiveness of slow-drip water torture.) And he was only making formal what humans had known for centuries: Not getting enough sleep is painful.

Today, the problem of too little sleep, and the quest for more of it, is as acute as ever: 27 percent of people in a new Consumer Reports survey of 4,023 U.S. adults said they had trouble falling asleep or staying asleep most nights, and 68 percent—or an estimated 164 million Americans—struggled with sleep at least once a week.

A good night’s sleep can require everything from the practical (a cool, comfortable pillow) to the ethereal (a deep sense of calm and peace of mind). The modern marketplace has exploded with proffered solutions for people who can’t sleep, from mattresses to white-noise machines, sleeping pills to sleep coaches.

Americans spent an estimated $41 billion on sleep aids and remedies in 2015, and that’s expected to grow to $52 billion by 2020, according to Natana Raj, an analyst with BCC Research in Wellesley, Mass. The rub is that certain solutions don’t work as well as claimed—if they work at all.