Stylist contributor Francesca Brown goes to a wellbeing spa on the Spanish coast to tackle her sleep issues.
I’m 1,200 miles away from home and 30 minutes away from bedtime in a Spanish nurse’s office. She’s hooking me up to a portable sleep polygraph with tubes up my nose and a monitor clipped to my index finger to measure my oxygen intake and breathing. “Just to say, you probably won’t sleep that well tonight,” she cheerfully briefs me. All I can think is plus ça change because me and 3am hang out on a nightly basis.
At that witching hour, I’ll be wide awake, my anxious mind squirrelling away on deadlines, forgotten birthdays, that time in 2009 when I had to send emails to new colleagues apologising for my behaviour at the Christmas party… I’ll snatch a couple of hours’ sleep and wake at 7am a walking zombie – grumpy, impatient and unable to concentrate on work. So when the pioneering SHA Wellness Clinic on the Costa Blanca in Spain asks Stylist for a sleep guinea pig for three nights, I am the first to stick my weary hand in the air.
Acclaimed for its pioneering 360-degree holistic approach to health, the SHA mixes state-of- the-art Western medicine (genetics, ozone therapy, hormone treatments) with the traditional (Chinese medicine, yoga, tai chi) all underpinned by macrobiotic menus and bespoke wellbeing and fitness regimes designed to boost health, detoxes and, crucially, sleep.
Plus, they mean business: three days before my stay I’m asked for my mattress and pillow preferences. The SHA app also recommends I forgo caffeine, meat and processed foods in favour of herbal teas and organic veg served with wholegrains in preparation for my treatment.
Thank god I do because arriving at SHA is a culture shock. It looks like a vast cruise liner has run into a mountain with sweeping views over the bay of Altea. It boasts luxury suites, a wellness clinic, a chef, two pools, a fitness area, a hydrotherapy complex, the SHAmadi restaurant, SHA boutique and the SHApel (for your spiritual needs); everything is pristine and dedicated to your wellbeing. The unfailingly lovely staff just want you to feel great.
It’s also a full-on first day of appointments where there’s a health examination; a medical consultation in which I’m prescribed magnesium before bed to aid sleep; a nutrition consultation which recommends SHA’s Biolight menu – lots of miso soup, fish, pickles, tofu and seitan along with personalised herbal teas including shiitake – to help me relax.
A meeting with Dr Mera, aka the “sleep doctor”, is booked in for 7.45am the next day and he’s passionate about the importance of rest. Arms flying, he advises everyone needs good sleep hygiene: walk around barefoot to support the meridian lines that run through our bodies according to Chinese medicine, don’t drink cold water, sleep with lavender under a pillow, go to sleep every night at 10.30pm and get over 50 hours of sleep a week waking at 5am every day.
But first, he needs to rule out sleep apnea, which he describes as: “Imagine I invisibly crept into your room then STRANGLED you in your sleep.” (Why would anyone paint this scene for an insomniac? Why?) So I’m signed up for a nocturnal polygraph diagnosis (the aforementioned tubes). After an uncomfortable night hooked up to the monitors, my results come back the next day and on a scale of one to 10 (10 being serious breathing problems that would require a sleep apnea mouth aid or BIOPTRON light therapy to reset circadian rhythms) I’m a pathetic two and the most likely causes of my sleep issues are: anxiety, stress and the need for better diet and fitness.
So I’m signed up to various detox treatments to get my body to shed unwanted toxins. These include the SHA Detox Massage which is lymphatic drainage via cupping (I now know what it would be like to try one of those silent Scientology births), a magnesium bath and a deep tissue massage by a man named Joan whom I’d marry if only he’d have me.
An appointment with the acupuncturist is particularly eye-opening as she reveals that, according to the 24-hour cycle of Chinese medicine, 3am-4am wake-ups are associated with anger and sadness and stress in the liver and lungs (hence the detox programme); she encourages me to open up my body’s blocked channels using her needles. Similarly, in a one-on-one yoga class, the instructor teaches me a viniyoga practice for when insomnia strikes that’s all about the breath and using the intercostal muscles that surround the lungs by expanding them backwards and sideways – breath is the thing that’ll get you back to sleep.
On the last evening, I’m sent for a neurocognitive assessment with a doctor who grills me about my life (from my libido to work). He suggests he place a skull cap on my head for some transcranial electrical stimulation to kickstart my prefrontal cortex (the brain centre of emotional responses) which he believes will counteract my nightly anxious thoughts and overactive brain. Lying under a blanket for 30 minutes with a strange tapping sensation on my head, my mind wanders to bizarre childhood memories and I leave his office strangely giggling to myself.
Back in my room that night I walk barefoot as prescribed, turn out the light by 10.30pm and place my head on the medium pillow. I feel positive, like something in my mind has turned a corner; that quality sleep isn’t totally elusive, I just need to give my brain the chance to switch off and my body will follow. I close my eyes and a perfect eight hours later I awake rested and calm. 3am has totally passed me by…
Room-only rates at SHA Wellness Clinic start from €330 (£278) for a Deluxe Suite and rates for a focused Sleep Recovery Programme start from €4,000 (£3,374) for seven days; shawellnessclinic.com
Images: courtesy of SHA Wellness Clinic; writer’s own
Francesca Brown is books editor for Stylist magazine and Stylist Loves; she also compiles the Style List on a weekly basis. She is a self-confessed HBO abuser and has a wide selection of grey sweatshirts. Honestly, you just can’t have enough. @franabouttown