Trash TV and body clocks: Sleep expert reveals tips for a good night's rest

Want to know the secret to falling asleep?

James Wilson, also known as The Sleep Geek, has the answers.

And when it comes to beating insomina, some of his tips might surprise you.

We chatted to the behavioural sleep expert, 41, on why alcohol and pills are not the answer to insomnia but Married At First Sight can help.

Is there any TV that actually helps you to sleep?

Definitely – stuff like the Robson Green fishing programme and Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing.

If you are laughing, that’s brilliant for sleep. Question Time is probably the worst thing you can watch before bed.

A lot of the good things for sleep are on in the morning, like Homes Under The Hammer, because you know what’s going to happen and you don’t have to concentrate.

I am watching Married At First Sight UK. That’s brilliant for sleep. You know they are all going to have an argument at some point and you feel better about yourself. It’s perfect.

What are the sleeper categories?

If you think of sleep types as like a line, at one end you’ve got early types, which we characterise as larks. That’s somebody who goes to bed between 8pm and 10pm, waking up somewhere between 4am and 6am.

At the other end you have owls, who would ideally wake up after 8am. In the middle you’ve got typical sleeping, although it does change throughout your life.

So how did you become The Sleep Geek?

My family sold beds and mattresses but from about the age of five I couldn’t sleep. My dad would come into my bedroom and say, ‘Just close your eyes and go to sleep,’ and because genetically he’s a good sleeper, he couldn’t understand why I wasn’t doing it.

In my teenage years it became really common for me to have insomnia. I was an academy footballer for Rotherham United but I would lie awake all night. It was only when I got involved in the family business and sold mattresses to consumers that I started to realise that for a lot of them it wasn’t their mattress that was the problem but something else in their lifestyle.

What’ it’s like to be a sleep expert

Salary: Practitioners charge anywhere between a normal counselling fee of £60 an hour to thousands of pounds an hour. But a lot of people don’t need that level of input.

Regular hours? At times I’ve done sessions at midnight and at 3am. Within sport you have people who want to get in touch from different time zones.

Short and sweet advice: Put in place a routine.

Did you talk to sleep experts back then?

I started by training with The Sleep Charity. I then worked with organisations like Red Bull and Sheffield United and Lincoln City football clubs.

I’ve worked with Rotherham United for five seasons. The hardest was last season during the pandemic.

Can circumstances beyond your control, such as work hours, have a big impact on sleep?

Your sleep type comes from your natural body clock. But as humans we are not that consistent and that’s where our bodies can become confused. A lot of people I work with are a bit early for their sleep types.

They have to get up at 6am so they are in bed by 10pm but they are night owls so they go to bed too early.

This makes them more stressed and less likely to sleep well. Once you understand your sleep type, you start to understand yourself as a sleeper.

What inspired you to co-found BeingWell at the start of the pandemic?

We’ve got a tool for helping people sleep better called Kip Advisor, which is about understanding yourself better and then applying some simple things to everyday life. You don’t cure your sleep issue, you understand what you need to do to minimise its impact.

I’m not going to do what some other people do and promise a utopia of never sleeping poorly again. Kids, dogs, relationships and work – they will all stop you sleeping.

James’ top sleep tip

‘Use the 30-minute rule to reset your mind in bed. So rather than worrying about not sleeping, listen to a podcast, the radio or read a book. That rule really helps people’

Have you worked with clients who thought they would never sleep again?

I get to help people who really believe they won’t ever sleep again. I worked with a lady who had a horrific time. She’d had a difficult childhood, and then she had a kid and that triggered some of the things she’d had to deal with in the past.

We had a 20-minute phone conversation. She had changed her mattress, tried hocus-pocus potions, used meditation apps and done sleep courses.

I said to her to look at all she was achieving. She was dealing with a child on her own, with a job. It’s that shift in mindset.

I’ve been where she was. Insomnia is lonely and you feel scared but when you understand it’s not about controlling it, it’s about your reaction to it, everything changes. Four or five nights later she messaged me that she had gone from two hours’ sleep a night to five, to seven.

She had been trying to do her driving theory test for two years. She passed it and was able to move on in her life. There are thousands of stories of people like her who with just a little change feel better.

Is there such a thing as the wrong sleeping environment?

There is. But I know people who sleep brilliantly with the light on or with loud noise or on their fronts, which is bad for your body. There are genetics involved. How you sleep is inherited from your ancestors.

If you are genetically predisposed to good sleep then you can do loads of things wrong. If you are predisposed to poor sleep then you maybe have to do a bit more work on it.

Mistakes, you’ve made a few?

Before one exam at university I drank half a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and that didn’t help at all. One of the common mistakes we make is believing alcohol will make you sleep better. It doesn’t – it knocks you out.

That’s not sleep, that’s sedation. Sleeping pills are offered to people who have had a horrific life event, like divorce or bereavement. It reminds your body how to sleep but it doesn’t give you sleep.

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