How a Single Vacation Helped Me Sleep Way Better at Home
“You’re tired,” said Param Dedhia, M.D., the director of sleep medicine for Canyon Ranch (doubles from $1,000 per person, all-inclusive). We were sitting in his office at the renowned wellness resort in Tucson, Arizona, going over the results of my WatchPAT test (from $1,517). A noninvasive overnight screening, it monitored, among other things, the length and quality of my sleep through a sensor attached to my finger.
Dedhia outlined that there are different stages of sleep — light, deep, and REM (rapid eye movement) — as the brain flushes itself of toxins and prepares to begin the day anew. It is also a time for emotional clearing. I moved into REM sleep less than 90 minutes after my head hit the pillow, which is a clear sign of fatigue. I couldn’t help thinking of the countless times I’ve said to people, “I’m exhausted.” It was nice to hear a professional confirm that it wasn’t just a platitude.
For years, I had no trouble nodding off. I knew exactly what my body needed: at least eight hours, ideally in a cool room with a white-noise machine. Then, in 2016, I had a kid and bought an apartment. Along with the wonderful came the not-so-wonderful: a newfound habit of waking between 2 and 4 a.m. to make to-do lists and worry about the future.
I’m not the only one awake at night. Thanks to frantic work schedules and the pervasiveness of technology, a good night’s sleep seems to be going the way of the out-of-office lunch — at a cost to our health. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the effects of not getting enough shut-eye include depression and diabetes. Numerous apps, devices, and literature, including Arianna Huffington’s 2016 book, The Sleep Revolution, a call to arms for eight hours, are dedicated to nighttime self-help. Hotels and brands like Canyon Ranch, the Corinthia London, and Six Senses are trying to be part of the solution by offering everything from quality mattresses to sleep consultants.
Dedhia, who trained in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins, told me that Canyon Ranch has focused on sleep for years, but has expanded its program to meet this demand. About seven guests a week take the WatchPAT test in the hope of discovering why they wake up exhausted. Is it apnea? Restless legs syndrome? In my case, I knew what some of the culprits were: a more sedentary lifestyle, coupled with too many glasses of wine (each drink you consume, Dedhia told me, disrupts two hours of sleep). Being at the resort, where I could indulge in restorative desert hikes and detox massages, should have positioned me for success. Though I wasn’t having trouble falling and staying asleep on the trip, something still felt off.
Which is why Dedhia had ordered the WatchPAT, which showed some interesting stuff. My apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) was normal, coming in at 4.3. (An apnea is a full collapse of the airway between 10 and 30 seconds, while a hypopnea is a partial collapse within the same time frame. Index means per hour.) But my respiratory disturbance index (RDI) was on the high side of mild, at 14.6. RDI takes into account “respiratory effort related arousals,” or, quite simply, little snorts, which interrupt your sleep. Fragmented sleep, he explained, can make you feel as if you haven’t slept at all.
But the WatchPAT has a margin of error of up to 20 percent. To get the full picture, Dedhia ordered a full polysomnogram (PSG; from $3,448). The overnight sleep study, which measures heart, brain, and muscle activity, is done in a cozy room in the medical wing. Participants, however, must wear multiple wires and electrodes on their bodies and up their noses.
Canyon Ranch has many pampering aspects: the hiking backpacks filled with portion-controlled snacks; therapists who’ve spent decades studying reflexology; five pools. But even they can’t sex up a PSG: the equipment makes you look like Medusa on steroids. The only person to see you in this unfortunate state is the overnight attendant, who watches you all night via a video screen in a nearby room.
I wouldn’t call the experience fun, but it was relatively painless. At 5:30 a.m., the attendant woke me up, and I was soon in Dedhia’s office analyzing charts of my brain activity and sleeping patterns. The test showed that during REM sleep, when I was on my back, my RDI was a higher 33.2. My AHI shot up to 27.4, signaling mild apnea, which the WatchPAT test hadn’t been able to catch. The scores were lower when I was on my side.
To mitigate the apnea, Dedhia suggested using a neti pot to open up my airways and a positional therapy pillow to force me to sleep on my side. Ah, but what about the middle-of-the-night waking? “Have a ritual before bed and engage the five senses,” he suggested. “Take a warm bath or shower, try yummy-smelling bath salts, play music, dim the lights, and wear a soft bathrobe. Make sleep an event again.”
All things I knew to do, but needed someone to reinforce. Back home, I’ve followed his advice and have had only one anxious night awake. Instead of mindlessly scrolling Instagram, I sat on the sofa and read a week-old Arts section of the New York Times. I learned a thing or two — and then went back to bed.