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Dr Michael Mosley busts the seven biggest sleep myths

Do phones really keep us up at night? Or is that just a myth? Dr Michael Mosley explains.

Given he once had a kip in a telephone kiosk when he missed the last train, Dr Michael Mosley seems an unlikely insomnia candidate. But years later that natural ability to nod off has become a distant memory for the British medical journalist. 

His obsession to find an answer to his sleep woes prompted him to sign up for a cutting edge trial with the Flinders University Sleep Institute, an experience that was captured in a three-part SBS series, Australia’s Sleep Revolution with Dr Michael Mosley. 

What he discovered was life changing. Increasing evidence shows a lack of sleep can affect everything from your waistline to mental health and, while it’s important to understand the risks, Dr Mosley’s focus is “on the practical stuff that actually works because scaring people just makes them worry. And adding to their list of worries might make them sleep less.” 

Dr Michael Mosley sat down with The Weekly to lift the lid on sleep myths and to share tips on how to fall asleep fast.

Q: Is it our crazy thoughts keeping us awake?

If you look at Google trends, there’s a distinct spike at 3am when people are looking up “insomniac”. Crazy thoughts is one of the reasons you might be awake early in the morning, and slow breathing is a way around that. I do the 4:2:4 technique where I breathe in for four seconds, hold for two, and breathe out for four and it works for me. Essentially what you are doing is activating your parasympathetic nervous system, which is like the brake in your system. Slow, deep breathing slows the heart and, along with a drop in core temperature, that triggers sleep. 

Q: What if getting to sleep is the problem?

You might have formed a fear of bed where you worry about not sleeping. A lot of people need to learn to associate bed with sleep and sex and nothing else. Your bedroom is not an entertainment centre, so you need to remove the TV and phone. If you can’t drop off, try having a warm bath or shower one hour before bed so your core temperature drops. If you’re a true insomniac you have to try more than dark shades, nice smells or listening to music, you have to improve your sleep efficiency. That means setting a wake-up time and sticking to it rigorously seven days a week. 

A more demanding version of this is sleep restriction therapy, which is the best way to cure insomnia. You are forced to spend less time in bed and within a short period of time you are so tired you sleep through the night and can gradually increase that sleep. 

Q: If it’s not sleep apnoea, what else could be the cause of your sleeplessness?

It could be a weird body clock. I’m an extreme lark so I get tired early in the evening and wake up too early. In contrast, one of the scientists in Australia’s Sleep Revolution was an extreme owl. For most of us, our body clock says go to bed at 10pm or 11pm, but hers was set to 2am or 3am. She found it beneficial to get light in the morning to reset her internal clock while I found getting light right before bed at 10pm shifted my body clock.

Q: If you’re getting the seven to nine hours of recommended sleep but you wake up feeling shattered, what is that telling you?

You should be waking up and thinking, “Hey, hey! I’m ready for the day!” If you get what appears to be a decent night’s sleep but you wake up feeling knackered, you need to find out why. More than five million Australians have sleep apnoea but only a small proportion know it. It’s one of those things your partner would have to tell you because it’s worse than snoring – you gasp so it’s noisy because your tongue blocks the airways. That means you stop breathing 30, 40 or 50 times an hour and so for a significant chunk of the night your oxygen levels are low and that’s bad for the brain. 

To get to the bottom of it you need to go to a sleep lab and get analysed. There are things you can do – there’s an oxygen mask that makes you look like Darth Vader. It’s not very sexy! Or a mouthguard device that makes your lower jaw come forward so your tongue is less likely to fall back. Another trick is to put a tennis ball in your pyjamas so it’s not comfortable to sleep on your back.

Q: Speaking of light, is blue light from screens to blame for an out-of-whack body clock?

The amount of blue light you get from your phone is so trivial you’d have to stare at it for six hours to make any difference. It’s to do with the fact you’re doom scrolling so you’re better off putting the phone on the other side of the room than you are getting a blue light filter.

Q: How effective are sleep supplements like magnesium and melatonin?

There is some evidence, particularly for jet lag, that melatonin can be effective but I think self-prescribing is not a good idea. I haven’t found evidence for magnesium. What we do know is that people who consume a Mediterranean-type diet sleep better.

Q: So the answer to a good night’s sleep is more fruit and veg?

And fibre. There is emerging science that you need various types of fibre too. You also need to give your intestines a break from food so it can repair. If you are constantly shovelling down food it never gets that opportunity. I’m a fan of intermittent fasting and the most bearable version for the majority of people is the 12:12 where you stop eating at 8pm and don’t eat until 8am. You should try not to eat within three hours of going to bed because you’re primed to sleep – it’s a bit like going into a restaurant late at night. The waiters will be grumpy because they want to go to bed. 

One of the other features of a Mediterranean lifestyle is having a nap. Ideally it should be no more than 20 or 25 minutes so you don’t remove the sleep drive for later. If your boss doesn’t mind, then why not?

10 tips on how to fall asleep fast

1. Leave your phone out 

of the bedroom.

2. Avoid eating three 

hours before bed.

3. Eat a diet rich in fibre, fruit and vegetables.

4. Do resistance exercise.

5. Practise slow breathing.

6. Take a warm bath one hour before bed.

7. Maintain a healthy weight.

8. Get up at the same 

time every day.

9. Don’t watch TV in bed.

10. Listen to your body – if you are tired, you’re not getting the right sleep quality or quantity.

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