Bed is for sex and sleep and nothing else: Dr Michael Mosley

Insomniacs around the country need to change their relationship with their bed and – harsh as it sounds – limit the amount of time they spend in it, says Dr Michael Mosley.

Author and broadcaster Dr Michael Mosley.

Speaking on Good Weekend Talks ahead of a tour of Australia later this month, the BBC broadcaster and documentary maker says he will investigate sleep as part of the three part series Australia’s health revolution, which screens later this year.

Famous for conducting experiments on his own body, Mosley trialled intermittent fasting – what became the popular 5:2 diet – when he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, reversing the disease and losing 10 kilograms in the process.

Next, he wants to investigate sleep and a theory developed by New York-based neurologist and sleep specialist Dr Arthur Spielman. Called Sleep Restriction Therapy, it starts with deliberately reducing the amount of time you spend in bed. “Because if you’re an insomniac like me, it’s not the hours you spend in bed but the hours spent in bed asleep …” says Mosley. “Once you become an insomniac it’s very difficult because you treat bed a bit like something to be feared but what we’re going to do is train your brain to associate bed with sleep and sex and nothing else.”

According to Spielman’s theory, the process of rebooting your approach to sleep can take up to six to eight weeks. While many small studies have been done to test the hypothesis, a larger meta analysis in 2021 found that on the whole it seems to work in the short-term for a lot of people, but there’s no good data for whether it works longer term. Even so, Mosley is enthusiastic about what might happen during trials to be conducted at the University of Adelaide.

Mosley also spoke about depression being treated through changes to lifestyle, revealed by Australian researchers at the Food and Mood Centre, part of Deakin University who have shown that when people suffering from moderate to severe depression switch from eating highly processed foods to a Mediterranean-style diet their mood improves; exercise also shows promising outcomes. The results have been adopted as clinical guidelines by the World Federation of the Society of Biological Psychiatry.

Chris Davey, Cato Chair and Head of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne says there is absolutely no doubt a healthy diet and exercise is good for your mental health, there are clear associations between of people who exercise more and have healthier diets having lower rates of depression.

The challenge has always been demonstrating it as a treatment: many studies don’t show that it’s effective and the reason is it’s very hard to get people to eat better and to exercise, he says. “It’s hard for all of us and especially when you have severe depression, it makes it that much more challenging to get people to eat better and exercise more – that’s not to say it doesn’t work. The challenge is packaging it in a way that you can get people to do it.”

Davey agrees with his peers at the Food and Mood Centre who argue doctors aren’t recommending lifestyle changes enough. “There is a challenge if you’ve got someone in front of you, with severe depression and they are wanting your help… it’s not an easy conversation to have, they usually are thinking about what seem to be more pressing things.”

Even so, he points out that many healthy fit people experience depression, so it’s not a panacea. “You can see with the number of athletes that talk about having depression, you couldn’t get any fitter or have a better diet.”

He says the gut has its own very complex nervous system that uses the same neuro chemicals as your brain does that are implicated in depression. “We also know that one of the factors that’s emerging as a very strong cause of depression is inflammation, and eating good foods and exercising have anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects, which are good for your mood. It is drawing attention to what’s going on in the rest of your body and what’s going on in terms of brain health.”

Dr Michael Mosley will be in Brisbane on March 18; Sydney, March 23; Melbourne, March 24; Adelaide, April 1; and Perth, April 4.

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