Like millions of Americans, I haven’t had a solid night’s sleep in years. Even so, when I agreed to undergo a sleep study at Whitney Sleep Center in Plymouth, I was more anxious than excited. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew cameras would be involved, and that freaked me out. Fortunately, I was in great hands. I arrived around 8:15 p.m. on a Thursday night and was welcomed by Melanie Dobson, my sleep technologist. After I got ready for bed, Dobson gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of the sleep center and answered some of my questions. It was the first interview I’ve ever conducted while wearing pajamas; I felt like Hugh Hefner. Dobson explained how sleep works: A person goes through five stages of sleep to get to R.E.M. (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, which is where the magic happens, so to speak. Scientists aren’t sure of the exact function of R.E.M. sleep, but a lack of it has been linked to memory problems, slower learning, behavioral issues and emotional imbalances. If you wake up more than twice a night, have problems getting out of bed in the morning and feel tired throughout the day, you might not be getting enough R.E.M. sleep, no matter how many hours you’re actually lying in bed. Something might be preventing your body from properly cycling through the stages; it’s estimated 18 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, a condition characterized by abnormal pauses (or flat-out stops) in breathing. Dobson has seen patients stop breathing for as long as two minutes at a time. As Dobson and I chatted, it became clear to me that a good night’s sleep isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity: More than 38,000 American cardiac deaths each year are attributed to sleep apnea, and drowsy driving is a factor in more than 56,000 car accidents annually. Wired and Ready for Bed With my questions answered, it was time to get wired up for my study. Dobson was sweet enough to explain each electrode as she stuck them to my legs, chest, neck, face and scalp. They all plugged into a gray box that reminded me of a Super Nintendo; when I lay down, it would slip into a cradle near my pillow. Dobson led me into my bedroom, which was decorated in a cabin theme and surprisingly cozy. Nautical and tropical décor can be found in several of the other rooms. She turned off the light and left the room. Then, I was alone—just me, the camera and my electrodes. As expected, it took me a while to fall asleep. Afraid I might unplug an electrode or two, I didn’t want to move. Knowing there was a microphone hooked up to my neck, I was self-conscious about my snoring and would purposely rouse myself when I heard the soft grumbles begin. I must’ve eventually drifted off to dream land, because I woke up to Dobson sneaking into my room and whispering, “Try to sleep on your back for a little while.” Her sudden presence next to my bed was discomfiting, but understandable: She wanted to be able to study me in all sleeping positions, and apparently I’d been listing from side to side up until then. The next time I awoke, it was morning. I grabbed some free breakfast, took a shower and headed off to work—as if I hadn’t just starred in my own private reality show: The Real (Tired) Housewife of Minneapolis. Embarrassing yet Essential I went back a few days later to review the results of my study with Dr. Courtney Whitney, who has specialized in sleep medicine since 2002. He and I reviewed my polysomnogram, a record of the more than 20 electrodes and sensors I had been hooked up to. The printout looks like a complicated, colorful lie-detector test and shows eye movements, brain waves, body position, breathing patterns and leg movements. Fortunately, my sleep study revealed that I do not have sleep apnea. According to Dr. Whitney’s analysis, I snore audibly when I lay on my side, yet my airways are more constricted when I lay on my back. I was able to ease into R.E.M. sleep four times during my study (or about 25 percent of my sleep time, which is ideal), but had some trouble getting there due to respiratory-event-related arousals: My breathing would slow until I suddenly inhaled, thereby waking myself and disrupting my cycle. I don’t have any major sleeping issues, but he recommended using a body pillow to encourage side-sleeping. Comparatively, I was an easy client; the majority of Dr. Whitney’s patients are diagnosed with sleep apnea, which can be treated with a CPAP machine, a mask of forced air that goes over the nose to ensure proper, steady breathing during sleep. “I’ve had people cry in my office after using the CPAP for a few weeks—‘Now I can sleep!’” he says. “I’ve also had people get angry with me because they don’t want to wear ‘that thing’ on their face.” Dr. Whitney says he completely understands his patients’ reluctance for treatment, as well as their joy when it works. And after going through a sleep study myself, so do I. The reason I—and countless others—are reluctant to undergo a sleep study is the same reason it’s so important to do one: Sleep is probably the most embarrassing, yet most essential, thing you do each day. & Whitney Sleep Center 2700 Campus Dr. Ste. 100 763.519.0634
Whitney Sleep Center
Writer Heather Voorhees demystifies the aura of the sleep test—and improves her own health in the process.