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29 June 2017Last updated
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Features | Health

My week at a Swiss sleep clinic

Friday’s Mark went to Lake Geneva to try and find a solution to his chronic insomnia

Mark Setchfield
9 Jun 2017 | 11:01 am
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  • The somewhat unusual dinner attire during my week of sleep therapy: I settled for taking my Michelin-star food in my room – before bed.

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  • Luxury and wellness at the clinic, a favourite of celebrities and luminaries, from Churchill to David Bowie to Cher.

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  • The clinic on the shores of Lake Geneva may have a medical focus, but the food plans and ambiance are that of a high-end hotel.

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You’d read a book to celebrate World Book Day and probably get your heart checked up on World Heart Day. So how would you celebrate World Sleep Day? By getting a good night’s sleep?

While that does sound like an excellent idea – according to the Sleep Managment Institue, a staggering 30-50 per cent of people suffer from insomnia and sleep-related issues. And that includes me.

Over the years I’ve tried everything to get a ‘good night’s sleep’ – from counting sheep and downing herbal remedies to investing in expensive pillows, bedsheets and blackout curtains.

Sleep, or rather the lack of it, has had a toll on my personal and professional life. I’ve turned up to office having had little or no sleep at all, making concentration difficult.

I have said many times that if money could buy sleep, I’d be investing in it heavily.

To that end, I’ve been trawling the net for sleep solutions and have come across sleep apps, sleep diets… and sleep clinics.

So it was a pleasant surprise when I was assigned a trip to Switzerland to experience a week-long sleep programme, at one of the leading destinations for sleep solutions – the award-winning Clinique La Praire (CPL) in Montreux.

More famed for its International Jazz Festival, Montreux is a small Swiss town on the edge of Lake Geneva, with a stunning mountain backdrop.

It was established in 1931 by Professor Paul Niehans, who pioneered the idea of injecting patients with tissue cells from lamb foetuses to stimulate cell rejuvenation, boost the immune system and slow down the ageing process.

With its hefty price tag, the clinic is popular with the rich and famous. Acquired by Swiss entrepreneur Armin Mattli in the 1980s, he went on to develop the clinic, where a medical team of over 50 specialists continue to do research. The original clinic building, a former boarding school, is now part of a massive $50 million dollar Swiss-style building complex, design by Jacques Richter and Ignacio Dahl Rocha, architects of the beautiful Néstle HQ building in nearby Vevey. It’s connected via underground tunnels, which has sparked many rumours of celebrities staying at the clinic being able to move from treatment to treatment in total privacy. The programmes include better mobility, revitalization and the newest, sleep therapy – this was the one for me.

My dreams of sorting out my sleep issues started at Geneva Airport I was met by one of CLP’s chauffeurs. I’d had a long flight from Dubai and was exhausted.

After a 45-minute journey past picturesque Lake Geneva to Montreux, I found the team ready to welcome me to CPL.

Check-in was done, I made my way to my room which I hoped would be the venue to the best week’s sleep I’d had. Heading to bed earlier than usual, around 9.30pm, I was hoping to be fresh and wide-eyed for my first day. I drew the curtains, put my iPhone on silent, I pulled back the sheets and lay down hoping this would be a good night.

It would only be a dream. At 4am I was still wide-eyed, staring at the ceiling. At 6am I decided I’d laid down enough and got up and caught up on the news. Was it because of the strange surroundings? A new place? A new bed?

I perused my schedule, which had been was slipped under the door. Sadly no breakfast yet, as I needed to get my body statistics done on an empty stomach.

At 8am there was a soft knock on the door. Dr Françoise Ulrich-Holden wheeled in a trolley stacked with monitors – my blood was taken, blood pressure and weight measured.

My next visit was from the clinic’s dietitian. Veronica talked me through what she had planned for me that week – food was also part of the sleep treatment. I explained that I’d been following a healthy diet, with no takeaways or fast food. She told me that a Michelin star chef would be preparing my 1,500 calorie bespoke programme for the week, which I was instantly excited about. I have never had a Michelin star chef cook for me, so I was looking forward to her menu proposal.

Checking the timesheet, I could see this was going to be a hectic day, with back-to-back appointments until 7pm.

Tests done, I had a light breakfast of cereal and muffins on the terrace overlooking landscaped gardens with a stunning mountain backdrop – chilly but it was a change from the searing heat of Dubai,

I then headed down to the medical centre for my first round of tests. First stop was the gym, where I was met by personal trainer Alex; he carried out a breathing analysis, BMI and heart rate. He didn’t seem at all alarmed by the readings as I rushed off to my next appointment at the aesthetic and cosmetic surgery department. The cosmetic consultant asked if there were any procedures I wanted while at CPL. I mentioned I was unhappy with my frown lines.

‘Don’t frown then,’ she suggested as we both burst out in laughter.

My next appointment was lunch; I was looking forward to this; I was shown to my table, which would be my table for every meal that week.

The restaurant was modern in decor but not too fussy, and floor to ceiling windows allowed amazing views of the mountains. My set three-course meal started with warm asparagus soup with lemon and thyme; the presentation was that of a five-star hotel. Next, tandoori roasted monkfish with broad beans, turnips and apple, followed by pan-fried baby banana and passion fruit. Verdict: How can this be a ‘controlled meal plan’? It was utterly delicious.

Later that afternoon I headed out of the compound to see the beauty that is Lake Geneva.

My final meeting for the day was one I hadn’t anticipated. To discover the reason for my bad sleep pattern, a technician attached 12 electrodes to my head, hooked up remotely to a monitor and told me that I could enjoy the rest of the day.

Back in my room, I took a look at myself in the mirror; I looked like a man with electric dreadlocks. Not wanting to scare other diners, I opted for room service. It was tricky tucking into my dinner while being entwined in cables.

Apparently, while I’m ‘sleeping’ the monitor will record my brainwaves, and eye movement, right from stage one when the sleep is lightest through to stage four, which is the heaviest when the brainwaves are the slowest.

That night I’m not sure I reached stage two, tossing and turning all night trying not strangle myself – possibly the worst night’s sleep I’ve had for ages. The next morning, the nurse came to my room to remove my electric dreadlocks and relieved of the mass of wires, I enjoyed breakfast on the terrace.

At my first meeting with Dr Sleep – aka Dr Olivier Staneczek, the specialist in internal medicine and respirology – we discussed my treatment so far, and he suggested another night of being monitored. To get more results, he explained the proposed treatment would follow my heart, breathing, REM and give a detailed account of my sleep cycle.

So after the day’s treatments and appointments, I returned to my room to get wired up. This time, electrodes were attached to my head, back and stomach, pipes were taped to my nose to monitor breathing and the monitor strapped around my belly. I looked like something straight out of a sci-fi movie.

As I climbed into bed, it was apparent – this wasn’t going to be easy or comfortable. I prefer sleeping on my tummy, but with all this equipment strapped to me, it was quite impossible. It felt like I had fallen asleep on the TV remote.

Over the next few days at the clinic, I underwent hypnosis, in which I was asked questions about my sleep patterns. I was also told to think of a place and time when I was totally relaxed. It took me some time, but finally, I remembered my time in Goa in the late 1990s. I was on lying on a beach in Colva, listening to my CD walkman, the water lapping my toes and my mind clear of the pressures of life. Sheer bliss.

Dr Fatima Santos calmly talked me back to that place by telling me to relax, unwind and feel that feeling I did then. I felt calm; her voice became less audible, and I think for a moment I was there, on the beach. Moments later I awake feeling like I had just been asleep for hours, and it felt like a really good sleep. ‘That was awesome’ I said.

She then told me to practice some breathing exercises. It felt odd being taught how to breathe, but as Dr Fatima explained, these are all ways of relaxing and promoting sleep.

‘Give me another four’ shouts Emile, my personal trainer. I gave him four more. It’s my third gym session as part of the programme, and the only difference from my regular gym at home is that here I am working out in the fresh mountain air.

I had regular check-ups during the week – my blood my pressure was monitored daily. I was by this stage getting into a routine: Breakfast, gym, relaxation massages, walks around the lake and, of course, sumptuous three-course meals.

My final day at the clinic was a tad nerve-racking; the results were in.

I waited outside Dr Staneczek’s office ready for diagnosis. ‘Mark, please come in and take a seat’, he said.

He then asked if I had enjoyed the sleep programme and if I had slept. I explained that I did have a few sleepless nights but the therapy and relaxation consultations were helping.

He then opened my file and began explaining the results of my various tests.

Showing me the sleep results he said ‘Mark, this is the area that concerns me. Last night your sleep was very broken, the results had demonstrated that you had stopped breathing.’

‘I stopped breathing?’ I asked.

‘Yes, he said. ‘64 times’.

Dr Staneczek explained that my issue was sleep apnea – something I had heard of, but I didn’t understand the symptoms. He told me that my tongue lies too far back and blocks my respiratory passage, causing me to stop breathing and preventing me from sleeping.

‘Can this be treated?’ I asked.

He offered three options.

Option one, break my jawbone and increase the cavity that my tongue rests in, which he thought was an extreme measure. I agreed.

The second option – make my tongue thinner by surgically removing the skin from each side. I did not like the prospect.

The last option, he said, was to have a brace fitted that would keep my windpipe open but this can be uncomfortable. I was shocked at the results but equally relieved that after years of sleepless nights I finally found the cause, and ways to treat the issue.

I’m tired of discussing my lack of sleep. Finally, I have concrete evidence that I do have a condition. So what’s next? Having been pulled, pricked, stretched, monitored and taught how to breathe, I can return to Dubai with solutions to my sleep problems.

I’ve ramped up my exercise routine; continued breathing, my caffeine consumption is at a minimum, phone on night mode and my diet albeit non-Michelin star is on track. Done, tired, I bid you goodnight and hope you sleep well.

Mark Setchfield

Mark Setchfield