Sleep-deprived Canadians are fuelling a boom in alternative products

Sleep-deprived Canadians are driving a boom in products designed to help them get a good night's rest. Despite the lack of evidence that they work, weighted blankets, diffusers, 'smart' mattresses and bedtime stories for grown-ups are selling fast.

Canadian entrepreneurs are cashing in on a growing demand for non-pharmaceutical sleep aids

Omar Shahban, left, and his cousin Fahd Javed inside the Toronto-area warehouse that ships their Gravid weighted blankets. (CBC)

Tired Canadians desperate for a good night's sleep are fuelling a boom in the sale of new and alternative sleep aids.

Weighted blankets, smartphone apps, diffusers, white noise machines, "smart" beds that moderate the temperature of your mattress — the range of products designed to help you sleep better than a baby is inventive and ever-expanding.

One market research firm estimates that the value of the sleep industry — excluding pharmaceuticals — will be worth $30 billion US worldwide by the end of this year.

"We've seen a lot of innovation in the sleep category in the last few years, particularly in the technology," said Chris Potter, who runs Wellwise, a new division of Shoppers Drug Mart with 44 locations in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta.

The retail chain specializes in health and wellness merchandise designed to help with a variety of conditions, and has recently identified sleep quality as a growing concern for customers.

"The medical community has been clear that a good night's sleep is really an important part of overall health and wellness, and companies are responding to that," Potter said.

Movie stars, musicians and entrepreneurs

The arts community is getting on board the trend, too.

Actor Matthew McConaughey was hired by Calm, the sleep and meditation app, to read one of its bedtime stories for grown-ups.

"She climbed into bed and allowed her head to fall into the pillow," McConaughey drawls dreamily in one of the company's Sleep Stories series.

The Calm smartphone app has enlisted actor Matthew McConaughey to read bedtime stories for grown-ups. (Calm)

Musical artist Moby has launched a new sleep album called Long Ambients 2.

"I hope to share it with other people who have sleep issues or battle anxiety or have a hard time calming themselves down," the musician said in a press release.

In Toronto, cousins Fahd Javed and Omar Shahban are cashing in on sleep-deprived Canadians. The duo launched a weighted blanket under the brand name Gravid in 2017, after seeing similar products catch on south of the border.

Weighted blankets are filled with pellets, balls, or chains. Fans of the product say the pressure feels like a firm hug, and manufacturers claim they reduce anxiety and promote deep sleep.

"We noticed there wasn't really a prominent creator of these blankets in Canada," Shahban said, "so we thought that was a void we could fill."

They saw that same void in Australia and expanded the company down under last October.

Blanketing the nation

Initially, though, they launched what they called a "skeleton" website to figure out if there was enough demand for a $160 blanket, plus $80 for a washable cover.

"Sure enough, month over month, the pre-orders came in, and then the product started shipping and we've been growing for over two years now," said Javed.

The cousins say 20,000 Canadian households currently have a Gravid blanket.

The Wellwise chain sells a variety of products meant to improve sleep, including an array of devices that produce soothing sounds. (CBC News)

Research by Statistics Canada suggests that sleep patterns are indeed changing, and not for the better: we get an hour less sleep every night than we did in 2005. Our quality of sleep is also suffering, and insomnia increased by 42 per cent from 2007 to 2015 among adult Canadians, according to another StatsCan study.

False claims

But do the blankets — or any of these new products — actually work?  

Dr. Jean-Philippe Chaput is a research scientist at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario who's been studying sleep problems and solutions for 10 years.

"We lack good evidence [to show] these quick fixes are effective," he said. "There are very few studies out there."

Chaput says the best way to improve your quality of sleep is to exercise regularly, remove screens from your bedroom and follow a consistent bedtime routine. But he acknowledges people often have a hard time building good habits.  

"It's easier to buy a mattress or some gadgets," he said. "I think there's money to be made, and companies are aware of that. They want to sell products."

Devices should be shut off at least an hour before bedtime and be kept out of the bedroom, according to sleep specialists. (Pixabay/Noelsch)

Last year, an American brand of weighted blanket had to change its marketing to say it can be "used" to help with anxiety and insomnia, not that it "treats" those conditions.

Javed is upfront about the fact that the Gravid blanket doesn't work for everyone.  

"It's definitely a polarizing effect when you use this blanket," he said. "It's either going to work for you instantly, or it's not going to work at all." For that reason, he said the company offers a 14-day trial with a money-back guarantee.

Bigger than drugs

What's been proven beyond a doubt, however, is that the sleep business is thriving.

In an analysis of the industry, American firm Persistence Market Research separated sleeping medications from what it calls "the others" segment, which includes mattresses and sleep apnea devices. "In the product category, the others segment is estimated to be the largest with respect to market value," it reported.

At Shoppers, Chris Potter says the Wellwise chain now has "sleep specialists" in every store.

"These are registered nurses or respiratory therapists who help you create the right environment for sleep," he said. "And in the case of sleep apnea, they can also help you get treatment, working with your doctor."

Chris Potter, who runs Wellwise, a new division of Shoppers Drug Mart, says he's seen 'a lot of innovation in the sleep category' in recent years. (CBC News)

With a growing body of research that demonstrates the importance of sleep, including its possible role in improving memory, increasing longevity and preventing dementia — not to mention how a good night's sleep increases our feeling of well-being — there's little doubt that even without scientific support, purveyors of sleep solutions will enjoy strong sales for years to come.


Dianne Buckner has reported on entrepreneurs for two decades. She hosts Dragons' Den on CBC Television and is part of the business news team at CBC News Network.