Watch the full interview below or listen to the full episode on your iPhone HERE.
Stu: This week, I’m excited to welcome Dr. Damon Ashworth to the podcast. Dr Damon Ashworth is a Clinical Psychologist who completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University, a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences, and a Bachelor of Psychological Science with Honours at La Trobe University. Damon is considered an expert in the field of sleep and treatments for insomnia. His Doctoral research was a randomised clinical trial that significantly reduced insomnia and depression severity of participants across only four sessions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I). He takes a client-centred approach to treatment and aims to reduce distress and improve clients’ well-being while helping them achieve their goals.
He practices primarily from a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy framework. However, he also utilises Existential, Psychodynamic, Schema, Interpersonal, Dialectical, Humanistic, and Positive Psychology principles where clients will benefit from such approaches. He is passionate about the field of Psychology and always aims to apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.
Some questions asked during this episode:
How do you define good quality sleep?
What are the quick-wins where sleep is concerned?
If I wake up with a racing mind what should I do?
Get more of Dr Damon Ashworth:
If you enjoyed this, then we think you’ll enjoy this interview
The views expressed on this podcast are the personal views of the host and guest speakers and not the views of Bega Cheese Limited or 180 Nutrition Pty Ltd. In addition, the views expressed should not be taken or relied upon as medical advice. Listeners should speak to their doctor to obtain medical advice.
Disclaimer: The transcript below has not been proofread and some words may be mis-transcribed.
Hey, this is Stu from 180 Nutrition, and welcome to another episode of The Health Sessions. It’s here that we connect with the world’s best experts in health, wellness, and human performance in an attempt to cut through the confusion around what it actually takes to achieve a long-lasting health. Now, I’m sure that’s something that we all strive to have. I certainly do.
Before we get into the show today, you might not know that we make products too. That’s right. We’re into whole food nutrition, and have a range of super foods and natural supplements to help support your day. If you are curious, want to find out more, just jump over to our website. That is 180nutrition.com.au, and take a look. Okay, back to the show.
This week. I’m excited to welcome Dr. Damon Ashworth to the podcast. Dr. Ashworth is a clinical psychologist and considered an expert in the field of sleep and treatments for insomnia. He recently completed his first book on the subject called Deliberately Better Sleep. In this conversation, we discuss strategies on getting to sleep, staying asleep, and improving the overall quality of our sleep, something that we should all pay close attention to. Over to Dr. Ashworth.
Hey, guys. This is Stu from 180 Nutrition, and I am delighted to welcome Dr. Damon Ashworth to the podcast. Dr. Ashworth, but I’m going to call you Damon for the purposes of this conversation, as we just discussed, thank you for joining us. How are you? And first up, before we get into the nitty-gritty of the conversation, I would love it if you could just tell us a little bit about yourself, please.
Sure. Yeah. I’m Damon. I’m a clinical psychologist. So I did my research at Monash University in Australia. It was a clinical trial where we saw people with insomnia and depression, and they’d been given antidepressants, and they weren’t improving as much as they’d like to. So we gave them four sessions of CBTI or cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, and we found that it improved their sleep, but it also improved their mood and depression, their anxiety, their stress, and also their fatigue. So it had a huge impact.
Wonderful. At 180 Nutrition, we talk about pillars of health, so nutrition, movement, mindset, and sleep. And we always say that sleep is the most important pillar because without good sleep, the other pillars just crumble. It doesn’t matter how well you eat, how much you move or how bright and lively your mind is. Without sleep, everything else fails.
So I’m interested then to hear from you about your definition of good sleep. Because many people will just go into the bedroom and shut their eyes and go for that count, like, “Oh, I’m going to sleep for eight hours, nine hours,” but perhaps not wake up feeling that refreshed and may think that it’s not a problem. What’s your take on that?
Yeah, I’d say good sleep would probably be being able to fall asleep in a reasonable time, so within about 15 minutes on average, maybe waking up once or twice during the night, but not having too much difficulty in getting back to sleep, and then feeling like you’re able to get as much sleep as you’d like to, and then feeling pretty refreshed and able to do what you need to during the day.
Right. Okay. So how might the individual know in terms of when to sleep? Because I know we’ve got these night owl versus all of the others. Some people just like to go to sleep later, some earlier, and most people think, “Well, I should be getting between seven and nine hours. Don’t really know.” Is that important at all?
In terms of the amount of sleep or the timing?
Yeah. Both are important. I think with the timing of sleep, it’s based on people’s circadian rhythm. So like you said, there are morning people, or I think they’re called larks, but they might sleep best between 9:00 PM and 5:00 AM. And for them it’s going to be really important that they try not to stay up too late because then they’ll probably have a fairly short sleep still. They’ll still tend to wake up pretty early in the morning. And also to try to not force themselves to stay in bed too long in the morning. So it’s better to go to bed at the natural time for them when they feel sleepy, and then to get up early, and just really enjoy that slower start to the day.
Now, for evening people, the biggest trap they can fall into is trying to go to bed too early. So their body’s not ready for it, but they’re trying to force themselves to go to sleep, and they might sleep best between, say, 1:00 and 9:00. And so if they can have a job that starts a little bit later or things in their life that suit what’s natural for them, it’s probably going to be better than forcing themselves to sleep at a different time.
When thinking about identifying the lark versus the owl, is that something that you would intuitively know just by the way that you feel at those times? Or should we be looking at testing for that?
There’s a few different ways to test for it. So there is a questionnaire that you can take called the Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire, and that’s a more thorough way of looking at it. But if you just wanted to get a sense for yourself, just think about if you were on holidays for two weeks, what time would you naturally go to in terms of going to bed and waking up? Now, if you can pick an eight-hour window, that might give you an indication of what feels most natural to you. So you might have to go to bed at different times for work, but if you were on holidays, what would you pick? And if it’s, say, 2:00 to 10:00, then you’re probably more of that evening person. Or if it’s nice and early, then you’re probably more of the morning person.
Now I’m going to play devil’s advocate because I’m going on holiday, but I’ve traveled on an airplane now and I’m in a different time zone, and I’m also drinking lots of alcohol because I’m up late because I can do. So it’s kind of tricky. It’s tricky, I guess, from that perspective. But yeah, I can see where you’re going with that for sure.
You mentioned circadian rhythm, and this is a phrase that is becoming more popular, especially where devices are concerned, mobile use, things like that, because we’re told that they can interrupt the circadian rhythm. Many people perhaps don’t even know what circadian rhythm is. So I guess question to you, what is it and why is it important?
Yeah, circadian I think is a Latin word for about a day. So it essentially just means that there are lots of different things in our body that operate on about a 24-hour cycle. So we know that growth hormone tends to spike more at the start of the night, and that helps us recover and replenish. And we know that cortisol spikes in the morning to generally help us get going for the day. And we also know that melatonin starts in the early evening, and that can, as it increases, help us to fall asleep and stay asleep during the night. And so the more consistent our sleep is from day to day, then the more our circadian rhythms are going to send us those large signals that, all right, now it’s time to get up in the morning, and at nighttime, now it’s time to go to bed. So ideally, the more consistent it is, the more our body clock works for us to help us go to bed when we want to and to get up when we want to.
And how open is the circadian rhythm or our circadian rhythm to abuse from external factors such as light and devices, things like that?
Yeah. Circadian rhythm is probably most sensitive to light. So we know that with jet lag, for example, if you travel to another place, people get jet-lagged because their body clock is out of sync with the new environment. So their body’s used to going to bed at maybe 10 to 6:00 in their old environment, but then their body clock has changed a lot. So if I fly to America, I’m going to arrive at a time that I might be trying to sleep in Australia, and it really throws things out. But we can change it by getting light at the right time. So if we get light in the mornings and if we minimize how much light we’re getting at night, it does help our body clock shift to that new pattern.
And you mentioned light. Any certain type of light or all light? Because I’m thinking about in the morning time people… I have heard that sunlight is very, very important, and the evening, the opposite is true for the light emitted from devices. It is very important to try and reduce that.
Yeah. So they say that more the orange or red light is… Based on a natural way of looking at it, it’s more to do with when we first get up in the morning and when we go to bed at nighttime. So the campfire was darker, and sunset, it starts to get a bit darker. So ideally we want to try to maximize how much blue or white light we’re getting in the mornings to signal to our body that it’s time to get up, time to get going. And then at nighttime we want to try to minimize how much of that white or blue light we’re getting, which is often what we get from screens, such as computers or tablets or phones. So we do ideally want to minimize that in those last few hours before bed.
Okay. All right. Well, I have a bunch of questions, but I think I want to talk about your book first. And then after we’ve heard you explain about the what and the why of the book, then I’m going to hit you with all the other questions, because I have a lot of questions personally that I would like to know, because sleep optimization is right up there as of great importance to me. So first up, you’ve written a book called Deliberately Better Sleep.
Yep. Got a copy just here.
Right. Nice cover. Nice cover. I like it. Bright blue. Why? Why did you write the book?
Okay, so I’ve worked in the sleep field probably since 2010, and what I noticed is how similar a lot of the presenting issues were where people would say, “I’ve got an issue with this,” and maybe there’s not a huge amount of knowledge out there in terms of why people are having those difficulties sleeping and also what they can do about it. So I think if you type strategies for insomnia, you’ll be able to find heaps online, and some of them are very consistent, but most people don’t understand why they’ve got those issues and then why those strategies can help.
So I guess what I’m trying to do with the book is really just put all that information that I’ve learnt since 2010 down in a place where people can understand it, and then walk through a process so they know why they’re sleeping poorly, what they can do about it, and how they can keep it going going forward.
Okay. And tell us about your sleep. Because typically, most people that have written a book are generally trying to solve or have solved some problem of their own. So tell me about your sleep journey.
I would say that when I was younger, I was tired all the time, and it’s probably, looking back at it now, to do with what’s called a delayed sleep phase disorder, and that my body clock was quite delayed. So it would’ve been best for me to sleep maybe from 12:00 to 8:00. But I was having to get up at 6:00 for school. And so often I was pretty tired during the day, and if it was on weekends or holidays, I wouldn’t feel as tired. And so I wouldn’t really know what was going on, I’d go to the GP and they’re like, “Oh, you’re not middle age, you’re not overweight, nothing’s wrong.” And so I didn’t even get referred to a sleep physician, I just had to kind of figure it out on my own.
And then when I went to university, I started working night shift, and what I noticed is by working till 2:00 or 3:00 AM, suddenly I was able to fall asleep really quickly when I got home and I was able to feel pretty good during the day. So I noticed that there were lots of things that were having a positive impact on me, and I really wanted to explore it further.
That’s fascinating. You mentioned a sleep physician as well. Now, I have three daughters, two of which are twins. When the twins were born, my sleep broke, for want of a better word. And there was so much going on with new babies and we had a three-year-old as well, and I was building a business at the time, and it just did not work. My sleep was terrible. I was waking up with racing heart in the middle of the night. And because of the angle that I took with 180 Nutrition, just trying to find out more and more and solve problems and then spread the solutions, or at least my findings with our audience, I booked myself into a sleep clinic for one night.
I couldn’t imagine an environment that would be less conducive to good sleep. I couldn’t construct a scenario that would wreck every single person’s sleep that I tried to get in here. I had a bunch of wires attached all over my body that I almost felt mummified with wires, and I couldn’t go to the toilet. They said, “Oh, you can’t leave the bed. Here’s a bed pan if you need to go to the toilet.” I had monitors on my fingers that were really super tight. There were flashing lights everywhere and beeps and whirls and buzzes, and hospital lights everywhere and just wasn’t dark. And I think I probably had the worst night’s sleep I have ever had in that particular sleep clinic. And I came away from that and thought, “This is just rubbish. This is absurd. There must be a better way.” And so we’ll dig into a lot of the stuff that you’ve uncovered in your book in a while, but what are your thoughts on sleep clinics? Given my experience, and I’m sure it’s a common experience.
Yeah, I did a sleep study back in 2013 as well, and I normally don’t have too much difficulty sleeping these days, but that night they tried to get me to go to sleep at 10:00, and that’s just not natural for me. And so I think it took maybe 45 minutes to fall asleep, and it was a terrible night of sleep as well.
So if someone is having sleep difficulties, if it’s sleep apnea or things like that, it’s really good to have a study because it will pick that up, but if you’ve got insomnia, it’s maybe not the best thing to do. So it’s got its place, and I think talking to sleep physicians is great because of all the training they have, but I think sometimes doing devices at home people can do or using activity trackers or different things to get a sense of their sleep might be better than having a sleep study.
Yeah, I think so too. It’s interesting. I mean, they didn’t ask me about myself in any way, diet, lifestyle factors, all of the above. I mean, for all they knew, I could be chugging down Red Bulls before I went to bed just for a little bit of a kick. Nobody would ever know. I was never asked.
So what can we expect from the book? So tell us a little bit more about the nuts and the bolts. Is there a journey that you can walk through that allows me to be my own… I guess allows me to pinpoint exactly where I am on this sleep journey?
To be the detective of my own body.
Yeah. It’s really a 10-step process. So the first one is around finding an expert that can work for you. Now, if you’re reading the book, then I’ll be the expert on that, but people can get help from a sleep position or CBTI expert or a behavioral sleep medicine expert. Step two is about setting your intention. So really figuring out is sleep the most important thing for you to change at the moment? And if so, what would you like to change about it? Step three goes into what are some of the things that have evidence behind them with sleep strategies. A lot of people will tell you have a glass of milk or a cup of tea, but is there much evidence behind it? So it breaks a lot of that down. And then step four’s around, okay, well, which of these strategies do I think is going to work best for me and my lifestyle? And then I think step five is doing a baseline assessment and getting a sense of where your sleep is at now.
And then it’s around really going into what are the steps I can make doing those, assessing it after. And then the last few steps are around, okay, if I’ve fallen into any traps or having difficulties, what are some things I can do to troubleshoot? And then how do I keep those improvements going forward?
Okay. In terms of take-home tips, tricks, strategies, techniques, would there be a set, like a golden set of strategies that will just work for everyone regardless of who they are?
Probably not. There are two strategies that have the most evidence behind them. One would be stimulus control, which is really around only going to bed when you feel sleepy. Trying to not use the bed or bedroom for anything apart from sleep or sex. If you can’t fall asleep within about 15 to 20 minutes, not looking at the clock, but when it feels like it’s been 20 minutes, sleep isn’t close, to get up, do something relaxing. Once you feel sleepy, to go back to bed. To keep that process up every time you’re awake for more than 20 minutes in bed, and then get up at the same time each day. So that has a lot of evidence behind it. That’s stimulus control.
And the other one is sleep restriction, and that’s really cutting down how much time you’re in bed for. And let’s say if over the past week you’ve been sleeping six hours a night, let’s try for the next week to only be in bed for six and a half hours. And if we do that at a consistent time, get up at a consistent time, we find that that really improves people’s sleep pressure and their quality of sleep, and then they can start to expand how much time they’re spending in bed.
Okay. All right. No, that’s interesting. So we’ve found in 180 Nutrition, and we talk about sleep a lot in the articles that we distribute, and we’ve found that there are, well, generally there are two camps of people, those that have trouble getting to sleep and those that have trouble staying asleep. Let’s talk about the people that have problems staying asleep. And particularly in this day and age, there’s loads of crazy stuff going on. We’ve got mobile phones that are continually communicating bad news or media that makes us feel anxious or stimulates our brain as well. What should I do if I wake up… Let’s say I wake up at the same time every single night, 3:00 in the morning for some reason, racing mind, definitely not feeling sleepy, definitely not feeling like I could just drift back into a restful sleep. Literally like somebody’s pulled a lever, bang, everything’s coming in my mind, rumination 101, how can I address that?
I would say it depends what’s going on. So it’s worth exploring it a little bit further. And if it is due to maybe a bad dream or a nightmare that’s leading to those awakenings, then maybe the most effective thing people can do is called grounding. So really just getting a sense of what are some things around me? What can I see? Is there anything I can touch or feel? What can I hear? What can I taste? What can I smell? And then just ask yourself, am I safe? Now, hopefully you are, and if so, to remind yourself that you’re safe. But that really brings yourself back to a point where you’re feeling present and you’re feeling safe, and that’s going to make it a little bit easier to get back into sleep. So that’s probably the first step.
Now, if someone has a racing mind because they’ve just got lots of worries about the future, then there’d be another strategy. It’s called constructive worry. But a few hours before bed where you actually jot down what are some of those worries or concerns for me? And I don’t have to have a step to figure all of it out, but what is the next thing I could do that could help me feel like I’m doing something about this and I feel a bit more in control? Now, if people spend even five minutes a night doing that a few hours before bed, they’re much less likely to have that racing mind at nighttime.
Okay. That’s interesting because we often talk to lots of CEOs and high-flying business execs, and it’s always work related, “Oh, I’ve got to get up and I’ve got to do this in the morning.” So you think that the process of, I guess, firstly trying to ascertain exactly what those issues might be and then just creating a dot point list perhaps of some strategies that you might tend to in the morning. Because often, at that time of night, you’re trying to solve the problems that really shouldn’t be solved at that time.
Yep. So if you try to solve those a little bit earlier, I definitely wouldn’t recommend it straight before bed, but a few hours before bed, then hopefully you feel like, “I’ve already dealt with all those. I can wait till the same time tomorrow.”
Okay. All right. Great. Sleep tracking technology. So there’s loads available now. So back in the day it was the iPhone and you used to pop it under your pillow and I think it was the motion sensor would try and detect something, which I didn’t really think would be that valuable. Now we’ve moved on to Fitbits, Oura Rings, and some quite clever tech. What are your thoughts on that technology? And also just on the back of that, what are your thoughts on the way that we think about that technology? Because oftentimes it can be all-consuming and the first thing you do in the morning is I’ve got to see what my sleep score is, and that could set up the wrong type of day because now you’re anxious because your score didn’t say what you wanted it to say.
Yeah, I feel like it’s a really divisive topic. If you talk to a lot of people in the sleep field, they’ll have concerns around how much anxiety it can cause people. So I know with Oura Ring, for example, it does tend to overestimate time awake during the night. So if somebody doesn’t feel like they’ve spent much time awake at all and then they look and it shows that they’ve been awake for an hour, then that can definitely lead to more worry. And it can lead to people feeling like, “Oh, I need to spend even more time in bed,” and then that’s not going to be helpful for them.
So there are definitely some concerns, and if it does lead to people being more concerned and more worried and their stress levels go up, then I would actually recommend that for them to not use it. But I’ve got a Oura Ring, I’ve got a Fitbit, and I love both of them. And I tend to look at the data, but I don’t become obsessed about it. And I use it as a way to just help to make sure that I’m looking after myself in the ways that I want to. And if it’s done in that way or it helps people to feel reassured that, actually, I’m getting a little bit more sleep than it feels like, then that’s going to be real positive for them going forward.
And how accurate are both of those when pitched against each other? Because you’d hope that they’d be very close.
You would hope so. And I guess what’s important is what I call internal consistency. So if you have a bad night’s sleep, and on the data it shows a pretty poor night’s sleep, and then you have a good night’s sleep and it shows pretty good data, then it’s useful to use. I’ve compared one night where it said I had a 93 on the Oura Ring. On the Fitbit it said I had 91, and the total sleep time was very similar.
Yeah, that’s quite similar.
So there are some differences, but there is some research really showing that… I think Garmin’s got not the best name, but all the others were pretty similar to actigraphies and also to PSGs or sleep studies.
Okay. Yeah, that’s interesting. Yeah, I’ve been using an Oura Ring for a long time, many, many years. I was a little concerned when they launched this new algorithm, and they were very, very excited to launch this to the sleep community, but it dropped all of the scores significantly. And that made me think… And you can toggle through it. I mean, you’d be able to do the same. You can toggle between the new algorithm and the old and the algorithm, but it brings all the scores right down. So deep sleep, REM sleep, all of the other metrics, total sleep time, it almost chops it down by 30%, and that made me thought, well, how accurate is the original data in the first place?
Yeah. I do think the Oura Ring has always overestimated how much deep sleep I get. It sometimes says I get 40% a night, and I just don’t think that’s realistic.
Yeah, that’s huge. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, very interesting. So tell me, so you’re the sleep guy, so you’ve written a book, and I would imagine when you were writing the book you probably lost a little bit of sleep. Because I’ve heard that writing a book is quite taxing. But what does the sleep guy do to optimize your sleep?
I would say probably the three main questions that I’ll ask of myself as well as for other people I see is really, is my sleep pressure high enough? And if it is, that means if I’ve been out of bed for, say, 16 hours during the day, then it’s probably going to be pretty high. But I can do things to be active during the day that also increases it and not nap. So I’ll ask, is my sleep pressure high enough? I’ll say, is it the right time for my body clock?
Now, hopefully my work schedule’s in line with when I want to go to sleep, but if it’s not, I’ll really pay attention to light exposure that I’m getting. So in the morning as well as not being on screens at night. And then the third factor is around arousal. So how high or low is my arousal? Generally the lower it is before bed, the better I’m going to sleep. So I’m really making sure to do things to switch off from work a few hours before bed, to wind down before sleep. And then when I’m in bed, if I’m worried about something, to find a nice distraction that’s unlikely to stress me out too much. And for me, that’s often standup comedy where I’ll listen to that, and I don’t hate being awake, I’m having a good laugh, and before I know it, I’m asleep.
That’s good. Yeah, that’s excellent. Yeah, I use Netflix and typically watch junk. And I heard… I think it was Tim Ferriss once coined the phrase visual overwriting, and it’s literally just a method to try and switch off or dial down the thinking brain, much like your standup comedy, no doubt. Because I found that when I was listening to technical podcasts that would kind of keep me thinking about things and didn’t help with sleep as best it should. Yeah. Yeah, it’s very interesting.
And food, meal timing, how does that play into… I mean, we’re told that we should try and have three hours of clear time after we’ve eaten before we go to bed. And I’ve found personally with tracking with the Oura Ring that if I eat a late meal, resting heart rate stays elevated, and that tends to impact recovery, maybe sleep as well. But what are your thoughts in terms of when we should eat and perhaps what we should eat?
Okay. In terms of what we should eat, I’d say you’d know more about that than I would. In terms of timing, I definitely have noticed that it does play a role. So if you go to a sleep physician, they might not tell you too much about it or say if you have a light snack at bedtime, it’s not a problem. But I’ve noticed every time, like you said, if I eat too late, it does lead to that resting heart rate being a bit higher and taking a while to come down. So I’ll probably try to stop eating before 8:00 now, and generally I find it doesn’t have too much of a negative impact on my sleep.
Okay. Conversely then with drinking, so, I mean, alcohol we know, and I would imagine that you’re going to tell me that alcohol’s bad for sleep. Everybody kind of knows that. And I don’t personally drink, but I’ve spoken to enough people to know that it will generally wreck your metrics. I’m more interested in fluid intake, time for that fluid to then interact with bowel movements, bowel movements to interfere with sleep. I like to try and finish up any drinks before kind of 7:00 if I’m going to bed at 9:30.
As you get older, visits to the bathroom tend to become more frequent I have heard. I’m certainly no spring chicken myself. What’s your take on alcohol, on fluid drinks, hot drinks, even whether that’s a nice cup of caramel tea that makes you feel super restful but gets you up and going to the toilet three hours later?
Yeah, I heard a podcast recently talking about how our kidneys do work differently at different times of the day. So if we’re wanting to get a lot of liquid in the best time is properly in the mornings.
Interesting. Was that Huberman by any chance?
I think so. Yeah. Where Huberman was talking to Tim Ferriss?
Yes. Yeah, yeah. I listened to it. Yeah, that was an interesting… I thought, “Wow.” He was talking about sipping slowly as opposed to gulping, I think.
Okay. Nice. Yeah, so I think timing of it does matter as well. If people do find that they’re getting up a lot to go to the toilet, I’d really just explore which time of the day can I drink more of my liquid, and does this make a difference? So I don’t think it’s only about that. I do think stress does play a role in whether people get up and go to the toilet during the night too. So I’d do things to lower that arousal level down. But also I’d experiment and say, “Okay, if I stop drinking after seven, does it lead to a more restful sleep or me being less likely to wake up during the night?”
In terms of alcohol, we know that it’s not helpful for sleep. So I know some people call it a nightcap, but it really does negatively impact our resting heart rate, our heart rate variability, and we’re not going to have that good quality of sleep that we’re hoping for. So people are going to wake up and be a lot more tired the next day, even if they don’t remember being awake too much.
The last time I had a drink, and it was a couple of years ago and I had a few, not… Three drinks. But the metrics on the Oura Ring, I had to check whether the Oura Ring was actually working because all of the metrics were so low and literally had all the 90, 93, 94, 30. The data doesn’t lie, or at least not to that degree.
So tell me about supplements. There are so many things in the wonderful word of sleep, and currently the market is just a wash with so many different messages. And we could be advertised to about things like melatonin, and we’ve spoken about camomile, and then you’ve got adaptogens as well that supposedly chill you out, all the way through to amino acids. Things like glycine that have been used for sleep as well. Do you currently take any supplements? Would you recommend any supplements?
Probably not too much. If you do have a delayed body clock and you find that you’re going to sleep later than you want to, then taking melatonin is… It’s a useful thing and that’s probably where it has the most evidence behind it. So if you can have that at least a few hours before bed, it can help bring that body clock forward. I think for restless legs, people do take magnesium sometimes, or they take iron, and there’s some evidence that it helps. I’d say for everything else, there’s less scientific evidence behind it. So camomile or valerian, things like that, they can help some people, but there’s not too many studies that say “We’ve randomized this and have shown it’s made a massive difference to people’s sleep.”
Okay. And you experimented personally with any of these things just to see whether it changes the dial, moves the needle?
I’ve tried melatonin. And yeah, I do think especially for jet lag or if you have that delayed body clock, it’s great. Everything else, I don’t think it makes too much of a difference for me.
Okay. Back on the topic of tech, red light therapy, cold plunges, ice baths, infrared saunas, so heat, cold exposure, all of those things, have you dabbled in any of that? I mean, if you’re listening to Huberman, you’re probably doing a few of these things I would imagine.
It depends. I would say with saunas, if you have it in the early evening, I think it can make a difference. So doing things as a way to switch off after work or to wind down is good. For cold showers and things, I think if you do that in the morning, it’s good for helping people get going and be rejuvenated during the day. In terms of… Sorry, I forgot that other part that you were asking about.
Red light therapy.
Red light. No. So I wouldn’t overly recommend it. I think red light rather than blue light before bed is going to be helpful, and that it’s not going to negatively impact the circadian rhythms as much. But I think probably more important than the evening light is sometimes the morning light. So there’s some studies now that suggest that if we get a good half an hour of morning light exposure, then how much we’re on screens before bed, it doesn’t matter quite as much.
Okay. Yeah. So tell me what you do. I mean, do you have a morning routine in terms of, well, if I make sure that I get outside, get some light, get some movement, then it’s going to lay down the groundwork for the day’s mindset and also better quality sleep?
Yeah, definitely. If you can get out. If it’s already light when you first wake up, in that first hour, to get outside and to do a little bit of exercise I think is a perfect way to start the day. So if you go for a bit of a walk, even if it’s down to get a coffee at the local coffee place and you get some sunlight, it’s going to be a lot better than if you’re just staying inside and if you’re staying sedentary. So I’ll try to get moving, get outside, and then try to do meditation in the first few hours before I get up as well or after I get up.
And so tell us about meditations. How long? What type? And how does that impact it if you don’t do that perhaps then? Will that affect your sleep that day?
It could. For me, it’s not going to too much. No. So I’ll just do 10 minutes a day using the Waking Up app by Sam Harris. I’ve tried vipassana before, and with that they recommend two hours a day. So one hour in the morning, one hour at night.
And I just feel like it’s too much.
Yeah. Way too much. I struggle with… I’m not the type to meditate. I try and get my meditation through activities that put you in that state, but absolutely, if I was asked to meditate for two hours, I mean, I probably wouldn’t even start. I mean, it wouldn’t work for me.
And activity, so I’ve personally found that the more active I am, the better I sleep. I paid particular attention for the very first time last year in January to the activity monitor in Oura Ring, which I would completely ignored largely. I was only interested in the sleep metrics. And I thought, well, I wonder what happens if I radically increase my daily steps, so I’m way more active. And so I thought, I’ll try this for a year. I’ll hit 20,000 steps every single day for a year, see what happens.
And tracked it. And it was night and day. Deep sleep, more than likely 30% of sleep every single night, good amounts of REM sleep, marginally decreased waking times, felt better cognitively the next day as well, felt refreshed and ready to go. And so I kind of kept that up and I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I’ve dialed that back a little bit now to the 15 to 20, just because it takes time. Have you thought about tracking that stuff personally yourself? Do you track it? What type of exercise would you do? And is there a better type of exercise, do you think, for better quality sleep? And I’m talking about things like resistance training versus cardio.
Yeah. I would say probably the more important thing is doing it on a regular basis, so trying to get into a good habit of it. I think sometimes I’ll see people with insomnia and they say, “I’ve tried to do two hours of exercise for the last week and I’m still not sleeping better.” And so it’s not going to be the answer for everyone in terms of how do I improve my sleep right now? But if we can get into a really good habit of exercising even 30 minutes five times a week, we know it can have really positive impacts on our mental health as well as our physical health and our sleep. So I’d recommend that. If it’s strength training, even one to two times a week can make a big difference. So if we’re doing a bit of cardio, a bit of strength training, and hopefully half hour a day, then we’re doing all the right things.
Would timing be important? Because I know that personally I like to try and get strength training in before 4:00 PM, whether it be a morning session or a late afternoon session, but definitely before 4:00 PM. If I get into the 5:30, 6:00 then I just think I don’t wind down as much. Resting heart rate tends to be elevated a little bit more as well. Is that something that you’ve noticed?
Yeah, exercise can be a stressor on our body. So if we do it too close to bed, it can sometimes leave our stress levels a bit high and make it a bit harder to get to sleep, but we don’t sleep as well. So morning exercise is great because it’s plenty of time between that and when we go to bed, then it should be a really helpful thing for us. So I’d just say if you’re worried about if I exercise too much, try not to do it too late at nighttime. But if it’s in the morning or even in the afternoon, it should be a net positive rather than negative.
Got it. Okay. And gadgets and gizmos. Do you wear blue light blockers? Tell us what you use that may be unconventional. And I know that I walk around the house with red light blockers from kind of 6:00 PM and my family think I’m a lunatic, but I find them to be quite helpful.
I’ve tried some of the blue light blockers before, and I find for watching TV, they can be really good. With the computer I use f.lux, which is a similar thing. And then it just makes the screen look orange or red. And I’ve heard that Philips hue smart lights, they can also make the rooms look red and that can be helpful as well.
In terms of technology I use, probably the main things would be both Oura Ring and I’ve got a Fitbit Luxe, and I just use that as a way to track my activity during the day as well as how I’m sleeping at night. And for Oura, also looking at that readiness score. If I’m pushing myself too hard, I know that readiness score will decrease. And so it’s a nice way to just make sure I’m not pushing myself too hard across a week, and I’m looking after myself, and then the good sleep will come as a result of that.
Yeah, definitely. I think it’s definitely a lot of test, trial and error, n equals one. It is such a wide gamut of recommendations and suggestions from, again, a wide variety of voices. I’ve always found that if you tick off the important things, obviously stimulants, let’s just pull them, if you can pull them out your day, if you can’t, just reduce them or get them in early. And then thinking about the bedroom, nice and dark. Cool. I have found cool verging on cold always delivers better sleep quality for me. And tricky in Australia where at the moment it’s very hot and humid, so we need fans on and things like that. And earplugs. I wear earplugs as well and I have done since the twins were born, but they’ve worked wonders. Kind of puts you in that sleep environment, everything gets switched off and works a treat. Would you have any more areas that you might like to add to that list of, I guess, the sleep routine, hygiene, just the do’s and don’ts?
I guess the tricky part is it depends who you’re working with as well. So a lot of the people that I’ll see with insomnia, they’re already really worried about a lot of these things, and so I don’t want to give them 10 things that they have to think about. And sometimes it’s better to actually say, regardless of what you’re doing, as long as you’re not stressed about it, you’re probably going to sleep better. So all of this stuff can make a difference. If you’re in a really noisy environment wearing earplugs can be helpful, but if there’s not that much noise, then you don’t necessarily need them. And likewise, if you sleep in a room with no blinds, if you have an eye mask on, it’s probably going to help. But if you’ve got a decent set of blinds, then they might be okay as well. So I don’t want people to worry too much about it, but all of these things can give you that extra one to 2% as long as it doesn’t stress you out.
And, I mean, worry is quite possibly one of the biggest factors there when determining or trying to isolate the things that are really interrupting good quality sleep. You mentioned meditation and you also mentioned listening to podcasts or comedy, or things like that just to try and change that train of thought. What advice do you give to people that… I mean, I would imagine you can clearly pick up whether somebody is the anxious type and more predisposed to stressful situations, and stress in and of itself and the psychology behind stress is a very different avenue. Is that something that you tackle as a topic as well when trying to improve sleep?
I definitely think so. Yeah. It probably is I’d say the major factor for a lot of people with chronic sleep problems, in that over time, they might have one night where they lose that confidence in themselves and then not sleeping becomes this threat, and they’re doing whatever they can to protect themselves from it, but by doing that, they’re unable to get to sleep. So if we can help build up that sense of confidence, that I know what I can do here and I don’t need to worry about it, then people do start to sleep a lot better, and then it becomes this really positive cycle.
So if somebody is really worried about sleep, the more that they can really just get a sense of, okay, what are the one or two things or even three things that I could do that are going to make the biggest difference? Let’s just focus on those, forget about everything else, test it for a week or two, and then see what works. And if you’ve tried one thing and you know what’s working, keep it up. But if you feel like you need a little bit extra, what’s that next thing I could do?
And so I’ll always look at what’s the most science say? And we know that progressive muscle relaxation is good and that can help, or imagery is great in bed and that can help, but whatever it is, if your arousal level is at seven or an eight out of 10, and you want it to be at a three or four, then if it helps lower it, then we know it works. And for me, that might be listening to standup comedy and distracting myself. For other people that might just be working on slowing down their breath in bed or thinking about things that they’re grateful for, or thinking about things they’re looking forward to. And whatever it is, once they’ve found it, keep trying to apply that and know that you can get it whenever you need to.
Yeah. Yeah, it’s very, very true. A few months ago I attended a breath work session, and one of the gems that I pulled back from that session was just a simple art of box breathing. And it was just two seconds of breath, two seconds of hold, two seconds exhale, and again, two seconds of holding again. And just in that one, two, hold, hold, breathe, breathe, hold, hold, works wonders for a racing mind. And I thought, boy, oh boy, simple strategies like that can be so effective, yet often not spoken about. And breath can be such a powerful tool for the mind when we’re in that fight or flight state.
It’s huge. I’ve also heard of four, seven, eight, in that people breathe in for four, they hold for seven, and push out for eight. And that feels like a long time for one breath, but it can really help people to calm down as well.
Yeah. No, absolutely. Wow, boy. Well, that is a lot of information, and we’re kind of coming up on time. So just a question that I like to ask everybody, non-negotiables. So what are your non-negotiables, the things that you do every single day on autopilot, perhaps, to ensure that you crush each and every day?
So if we’re thinking in terms of sleep, I’d probably say I just aim for about eight hours in bed. I try to have fairly consistent to bed and wake times. So within an hour or two. Each morning I would say definitely want to do that 10 minutes of meditation in the morning. I want to try to get outside. I want to try to get half an hour of exercise, whether that’s strength or cardio. And then hopefully just a bit of socializing and connecting with other people.
Great. Fantastic. All good. What’s next? So Deliberately Better Sleep, we’ll point everybody to the links in the show notes in terms of how to access that as well. What have you got coming up in the next 12 months?
Well, I did volunteer in Vanuatu back in 2018 to 2020, so I’m hoping to go back there next year and go and set up my practice there. And I’m hoping that with the sleep book, that I can just help as many people around the world as possible. And once they really understand those skills that they don’t have to worry about it anymore and they know exactly what they can do and when to do it.
Fantastic. Brilliant. And so how can we get more of Dr. Damon Ashworth? Where can we point our listeners to if they want to find out more about yourself, dial into some articles, download the book, purchase the book, et cetera?
Yeah, I’d say my website, damonashworthpsychology.com would be the best place. And you can find the link to the book on there. You can see all the articles I’ve written. I am on Twitter, but I don’t comment too much on that. I tend to just share other articles I’ve written. So yeah, I’d say go to my website. The book is available on Booktopia, so you can get it through physical copy or e-copy. And yeah, the website, you’ll be able to find all of that.
Wonderful. Thank you so much for this conversation. I’ve learnt a lot, and I’m looking forward to sharing it because I think as we mentioned right at the start, that it’s such a pivotal pillar. And when sleep goes, quality of life follows very quickly. So much appreciated for all of your information and what you do. Best of luck with your book, and I might bring my copy out to Vanuatu personally so you can sign it for me.
No worries. Sounds great. Thank you.
Thanks so much. Bye-bye.