Michael Mosley helps struggling insomniacs with his new health book, 4 Weeks to Better Sleep

It features the latest scientific advice on how to catch 40 winks
Michael Mosley Pic: David BostockMichael Mosley Pic: David Bostock
Michael Mosley Pic: David Bostock

Television presenter, science journalist and author, Dr Michael Mosley, 66, is such a familiar face that he’s often recognised.

That happened in the supermarket recently. He was asked what was in his shopping basket, in reference to the programme that was airing, Channel 4’s Secrets of Your Big Shop, which involves Mosley analyzing people’s purchases.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

That might seem a bit cheeky, but he’s sanguine about the experience.

“It keeps me on the straight and narrow when I’m tempted to reach for a packet of biscuits,” he says.

Although Mosley’s focus is often on eating habits and most of us know him for being the creator of the 5:2 diet, which is now 12 years old and shrunk the waistlines of fans including Alex Salmond and George Osborne, the last couple of years have seen him research sleep.

That’s apt, as we are, he says, ‘a nation of insomniacs’.

His newest book, 4 Weeks to Better Sleep, is packed with evidence-based and science-backed advice, entertaining anecdotes and a month-long plan for readers to improve their habits. It’s a revised and updated version of his last book, Fast Asleep, which was released during lockdown.

The read is entertaining too, and debunks plenty of myths, including the one that Margaret Thatcher only needed four hours of sleep, and that cheese causes nightmares. It also underlines how crucial this activity is, when it comes to every function of the body.

There is information on the various tiers, from REM to the deepest stages, and the brain-clearing chemicals that are released.

Mosley is like a magpie, when it comes to research.

“My writing process is normally that I spend a couple of years collecting stuff, and then choose where I'm going to take the book. For this one, I was waiting until there was something new and interesting,” he says.

In this case, that was a sleep study at the Flinders University Sleep Institute in Adelaide. This author was one of 30 volunteers, who were filmed for a documentary, Australia’s Sleep Revolution with Michael Mosley, which is soon to be screened in the antipodes.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“The secret of getting a good night’s sleep is partly finding what your problem is. In their sleep lab, we were fitted with sleep trackers. We had to swallow electronic pills, which would measure internal core body temperature because that should be at its lowest at about four in the morning. For some people it’s much later and they tend to be owls, whereas if it’s earlier, they tend to be larks. They also monitored our snoring,” he says. “We found that about a third of the people had sleep apnea and didn’t know it. That’s when you stop breathing during the night, like snoring but much worse. They reckon in the UK that about 10 million people have sleep apnea and less than a half a million of those have had their condition detected or treated. There are also two types of insomnia – when you can’t go to sleep, and when you wake up at 3am in the morning, which is the one I’m particularly prone to”.

Mosley also often suffers from disturbed sleep, as his wife, Dr Clare Bailey Mosley, has parasomnia. This is an umbrella term for symptoms like sleepwalking and night terrors that involve abnormal movement and action while sleeping, though it appears as if she’s awake.

“It was ‘all go’ in my house last night,” he says. “She crawled over me, putting a knee on my chest, to go look for patients in the cupboard”.

Mosley’s book reveals that the best way to deal with this early morning awakening isn’t to continue lying there, trying to count sheep, but to get up and do something relaxing. As he says, getting a good night’s sleep means associating your bed with ‘sleep and sex’ and nothing else. You don’t want to associate your nest with wakefulness and anxiety.

Of course, you can’t make a cup of tea, because, as the book tells us, caffeine should be avoided past a certain time of day, depending on your tolerance.

So what does Mosley do in the wee small hours?

“I’ve got a pile of books, many of which I've read before, so they’re not too stimulating,” he says. “I go find the quiet corner where it's reasonably warm and I wrap up. Sometimes I listen to music, but normally I slowly read”.

Once you feel sleepy, you can go back to bed and try again.

However, there is no magic bullet. Much of the advice involves changing ingrained behaviours.

“A lot of our habits are accumulated and unconscious. In bed, you surround yourself with digital gadgets and go on your phone and watch telly and you're teaching your brain that being in bed is a time when lots of interesting and stimulating stuff goes on, and also stressful stuff,” Mosley says. “One of the most effective ways of treating people with insomnia is with what they call cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia. One of those things paradoxically, is, for example, reducing the amount of time you spend in bed, with what's called bedtime restriction therapy or sleep restriction therapy. There’s proper advice on how to do that safely because it's a powerful thing. For example, you wouldn't want to be doing it if you're working with heavy machinery or you're driving the next day”.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The book also covers the importance of diet, including advice not to eat within three hours of going to bed, and how gut health can impact sleep.

Thankfully for Scots, Mosley, who has also written The Clever Guts Diet book, is a big advocate of porridge, though I doubt a nighttime nip of whisky would also get his approval. He is so influential on these health-promoting subjects that he recently endorsed a brand of beetroot juice in his podcast, and sales went up by over 500 per cent.

“We go through a rigorous process of evaluating the evidence and I'm very careful about what I say,” he says. “I only really promote things which have a decent body of evidence behind them”.

As well as having his shopping basket inspected for biscuits, he’s often stopped so that people can thank him for whatever useful advice he’s imparted. Hopefully the same will be true, when it comes to catching those elusive zzzzs.

4 Weeks to Better Sleep by Dr Michael Mosley is out now, £14.99, Short Books



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.