New book by Newcastle psychologist answers myths about sleep habits

Talk about sleep: Dr Shane Pascoe of Newcastle with the new book he has co-written with sleep scientist Professor Graham Law. Picture: Marina Neil
Talk about sleep: Dr Shane Pascoe of Newcastle with the new book he has co-written with sleep scientist Professor Graham Law. Picture: Marina Neil

Newcastle psychologist Dr Shane Pascoe has teamed up with British Professor Graham Law to publish their second consumer-oriented self-help book, this time delving into the science and myths of sleep. 

The new book, titled Sleep Better, covers a range of myths, responding with scientific explanations in plain English. There are 40 topics addressed, each is dealt with in a short synopsis, a summary and tips on how to help the reader improve sleep.

Among the subjects: “I yawn because I’m tired,” “Coffee doesn’t affect my sleep”, “Napping is for old people”, “Cheese gives you nightmares”, “A little drink before bed helps me sleep”.

Dr Pascoe has answered some questions to provide insight into his viewpoint and lifestyle.

How much sleep do you get every night?

One of the reasons for writing the book is that I have three children under the age of six so sleep is very important to me and makes a significant impact when one of my three children decide it is their time to wake up mummy and daddy. They are on a rotating roster of one every three nights.

Do you think "fitbits" are a reliable measure of sleep?

A fitbit attempts to measure sleep by measuring motion using an accelerometer. Unfortunately, they can be prone to mistakes. They can find it difficult measuring the depth of sleep and also by over estimating sleep by including times in which you are just lying still. 

The best way of establishing a true measure of sleep is through a very tiresome and involved process of having a sleep study (using polysomnography). 

An easily accessible way of measuring your sleep is by a written measure using what is called a sleep log. Armed with information that you write down each morning about the length of sleep, time in bed, any disruptions and general quality of sleep you have, you can get a better picture of the factors impacting your sleep and thus, start to make changes that are most important to you.

Do you personally hit the snooze button? Do you think that's a bad habit for most people? Or does the body adjust to that behaviour as well?

My alarm clock is one of my three children. And no I do not use a snooze button. A snooze button can be problematic given that once you wake your body, this kick starts the processes that prepare you to greet the day and going back to sleep runs counter to these processes. 

Once the alarm goes off it is best to jump up, well slowly rise, and expose yourself to the morning light. This provides a good way of matching your requirements for energy during the day with where your body is in terms of its circadian rhythm. These external cues help to regulate the body's circadian rhythm.

How do you generally interpret a yawn when others do it in front of you, particularly in your office environment?

When people yawn in front of me I usually interpret this as the need for sleep.

Do you know any successful polyphasic sleepers (people who sleep more than twice in 24 hours)? Why do you think that is so?

I am unaware of any polyphasic sleepers however this may become more common given the casualisation of the workforce, 'gig economy' and people being able to work from home. Given most social commitments occur during office hours, I think this inhibits more people taking up polyphasic sleep patterns.

Have you ever encountered somebody who takes a nap holding a spoon? Have you tried it? Do you take naps, at work or home?

No I haven't encountered it yet and have not needed to myself given I am sure I am sleep deprived. 

I do however take naps on occasion at my office and also at home. Eco has a wonderful quote in his book called the name of the rose that describe naps as a sin of the flesh and that the more you get the more you want. 

It is extremely hard to try and limit your nap to 15, 20 or even 30 minutes but the benefits are significant given that it can rejuvenate you and increase the likelihood that you can continue your progress through your day and enjoy the sleep when it comes at night.

Do you get many clients whose lack of sleep stems from too much caffeine intake, or too much caffeine too late in the day? 

Often too much caffeine interacts with people that I see who have difficulties with anxiety. Moderating caffeine intake is part of a whole-body approach to increasing the likelihood that you are able to sleep well and by not drinking caffeine too late in the day, preferably before three pm, you give yourself the opportunity of metabolising the caffeine which is already in your system (caffeine has a half life of six hours) and again increasing the likelihood of going to sleep at night.

Do you have your own checklist of activities or conditions that you go through with clients who are having problems getting adequate sleeps? Is it easy to narrow down the source of lack of sleep?

My own checklist involves making sure that patients are engaging in what is called sleep hygiene. 1) Having a particular time they go to bed each night, within roughly an hour.  2) A set time in which you wake up irrespective of whether it is Sunday or Monday 3) Using your bed only for sex or sleep. Not worry or Netflixs and definitely not exposing yourself to the light that is admitted from screens such as televisions, mobile phones and iPads while in bed.

Do you know of any "cheese dreamers" besides Graham Law?

The only cheese dreamer that I know is Graham. It seems that this research question is still being debated.

What do you have for breakfast most days? And do you have a late snack?

I usually have Bircher muesli most days with some toast and tea. The latest snack I have is probably about two hours before I eventually go to bed.

The preface mentions your wife having trouble with postnatal depression. Did you treat Asiyah yourself? How much of that was sleep related and how did you deal with it as a family?

Postnatal depression is a significant and debilitating problem for many families. Asiyah got very good support from a range of health professionals and I limited my involvement to being a husband. 

I think poor sleep had a significant contributing factor to the intensity of the postnatal depression she experienced and as a family we tried not to deal with it by ourselves with my wife being courageous in talking about it openly, accessing support when we needed it and checking in on how each other was doing as we went along.

Dr Pascoe will discuss his book at Belmont Library at 5.30pm on August 29. Details: