Dom Joly’s dad was an insomniac, says the telly prankster. ‘I saw the effect on him and I remember thinking how lucky I was that I hadn’t inherited that.’
Indeed, Dom, perhaps best known for his hit Channel 4 series, Trigger Happy TV, has always slept like a log.
But in recent years, he’d become an inveterate snorer. ‘Snoring is a bit of a joke — except for the partner,’ he says. ‘My wife Stacey is a very light sleeper and I’d wake up sometimes to her poised above me about to punch me in the face with a clenched fist. If it got particularly bad, I’d be banished to another room.
‘I’d jokingly deny that I snored. But I now know it’s true. Earlier this year, I trekked across Lebanon — I was brought up in Beirut — with a couple of friends. We shared a room and one of them recorded me one night and played it back to me the next day. I’d had no idea. Boy, my snoring was loud.
Sleeping duty: Dom is perhaps best known for his hit Channel 4 series, Trigger Happy TV
‘I must say, I was quite embarrassed although Stacey felt vindicated. But I didn’t know what was causing it. I’d never had trouble with my sinuses. I was now 51. So perhaps it was a symptom of growing older. But I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do.’
All that changed in September. ‘I was having a drink in London’s Groucho Club and found myself at the bar sitting next to a man who turned out to be a sleep specialist. We started chatting and eventually I asked him if there was any way he could cure me of snoring.
‘He invited me to his clinic in Harley Street where I went a couple of days later and he quickly concluded that I was suffering from sleep apnoea.’
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This condition involves a repeated collapse of the tissues in the airway during sleep and affects up to 6 per cent of the population, says Dr Guy Meadows, a sleep physiologist and clinical director of The Sleep School in London. ‘Muscle tone that keeps them open during the day functions less well when we’re lying flat as we sleep.’
As well as the sound of air struggling to get through restricted airways, there can be a pause in breathing. ‘If it lasts longer than ten seconds, carbon dioxide, the stimulus for breathing, builds up causing a sudden sharp inhalation, often misread by the person’s partner as severe snoring,’ says Dr Meadows.
Sleep apnoea can make you very tired. ‘You’re not aware of it at the time,’ he explains, ‘but you’re being repeatedly woken up. And that results in excessive daytime sleepiness.’
Couple: Dapper Dom pictured with wife, Stacey, who has long been disturbed by his snoring
Being overweight can be at the root of the problem. If your neck measures more than 17in in men, or 16in in women, it increases your risk significantly. ‘It means more mass is pressing down on your airways when the muscles there are already slack because you’re asleep,’ says Dr Meadows. Depriving the brain of oxygen and forcing your heart into overdrive can have worrying effects on health.
Dom’s specialist gave him equipment to take home to record his night’s sleep. ‘Before I went to sleep, I put a small clip on to the end of my middle finger, a band round my wrist and a sticky pad over my heart,’ he says.
Ten days later, he returned to the clinic to hear the verdict: ‘Very severe sleep apnoea. It mainly occurs in overweight men over 45. I weighed 16½st, too heavy for my 6ft height. Sleep apnoea makes you stop breathing for up to 90 seconds at a time and, in my case, up to 90 times a night.
‘I was told it was probably caused by my tongue moving back and blocking the airways. The result was that my heart began pumping blood faster and faster around my body. It transpired that, for the better part of a decade, I hadn’t been getting proper REM (rapid eye movement) sleep which is important for brain function.’
The specialist said that, with Dom’s level of sleep apnoea, he was surprised he hadn’t suffered any brain damage. ‘He went on to say that, if I didn’t do something about it soon, in ten years’ time, if I was still alive, I’d have developed a pronounced risk of having a stroke or heart attack. That really freaked me out.’
‘I’d also have risked developing type 2 diabetes because a reduction in blood oxygen levels every time you stop breathing triggers a greater reliance on your blood glucose stores which would then become depleted.’
Dom was advised to use a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, which involves wearing a mask over your nose while you sleep. It’s plugged into a device that pumps pressurised air in to keep the airway open.
‘It transpired that, for the better part of a decade, I hadn’t been getting proper REM (rapid eye movement) sleep which is important for brain function,’ he says
‘Some people find it an encumbrance but I took to it immediately,’ he says. ‘I’ll never forget waking up the first morning having used the CPAP machine. I jumped straight out of bed and it was like bluebirds were circling my head singing a happy tune. I felt so sharp, it was incredible, as though I could take on anything.
‘In the past, I’d wake up and still feel dozy. I was also increasingly short-tempered but I can’t say I ever felt particularly drowsy during the day. Some sufferers, I was told, would fall asleep watching television — or at the wheel.’ (According to Dr Meadows, 20 per cent of all severe car crashes are caused by sleep apnoea.)
The star also determined to lose weight and get fit. ‘I’ve almost entirely cut out alcohol; I might now have a beer or a couple of glasses of wine a week,’ says Dom. ‘Before, I drank almost every day. And I walk everywhere, up to 15km [nine miles] a day: around 16,000 steps.
‘The result is I’ve lost a 1½st in three months and I aim to lose another stone. The only downside is that I’m in danger of becoming a total apnoea bore.’
But it’s a condition to be taken seriously, says Dr Meadows: ‘Apart from the strain it puts on your heart and brain, it can affect your day-to-day functioning. If you live alone, you may not be aware you’re a snorer so, if you get drowsy during the day, you may want to go to your GP for a check-up.’
For Dom now, life is good. ‘Stacey is pleased I’m no longer grumpy and so grateful that she can now have a good night’s sleep herself. She doesn’t mind sharing a bed with someone who looks a little like the Elephant Man.’
The CPAP machine has been refined in recent years. It used to be an enormous, free-standing device and it could cost up to £10,000. Now it’s compact.
‘The size of a radio alarm clock,’ says Dom. ‘I use one made by Philips which I bought for £700.’
It’s also had a positive effect on Dom’s work. ‘I’m touring the UK in a new production of The Rocky Horror Show. I play the Narrator, complete with fishnet stockings and high heels. Doing two shows a day on interrupted sleep would have really tested me. But I find I’m breezing through it.’
He just wishes he’d known all this five years ago. ‘I feel I’ve wasted that time being testy when I needn’t have been.
‘I can honestly say that the diagnosis has changed my life. In fact, I’m thinking of getting a T-shirt made saying: “Sorry I was a pain. Blame it on the apnoea!” ’
The Rocky Horror Show tours the UK until November 2019. Visit rockyhorror.co.uk
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