THE BLOG

Ask JJ: Getting to Sleep

04/21/2015 12:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

Dear JJ: I've long adhered to your 7-9 hours of sleep every night. I always get quality sleep, and rarely does it become interrupted save for an occasional bathroom trip. My big problem is getting to sleep. It's like trying to rapidly put the brakes on my mind around bedtime.

First things first: Make sure things like caffeine aren't interfering with falling asleep. Dr. Michael J. Breus mentions a study where researchers concluded "caffeine consumed even six hours before bedtime resulted in significantly diminished sleep quality and sleep quantity." In other words, retrace your steps: That mid-afternoon dark roast could be keeping you wired at 11 p.m.

If you've got to have your morning java (I'm with you there), make a noon swap to decaf green tea, which contains the amino acid theanine that raises GABA, a calming brain chemical that can help promote good sleep.

Skip out on the pinot as a pre-slumber relaxant, which might help you fall asleep but won't keep you there.

"Alcohol plays a nasty trick on your body," says Lisa Medalie, PsyD, a behavioral sleep medicine specialist at the University of Chicago. "Drinking within three hours of bedtime helps you nod off -- booze is a depressant, after all. But once the alcohol is metabolized hours later, you're more likely to wake up or start tossing and turning."

Next, make sure you keep your workout to morning or early afternoon. According to Dr. Sara Gottfried in The Hormone Reset Diet, "vigorous exercise very close to bedtime can interfere with your sleep." If that 7 p.m. spin class leaves you cranked up three hours later, you know what she's talking about.

Consider too how stress keeps you wired when you should be tired, creating a vicious cycle that impedes sleep and makes you more stressed out. "Look, you know this," writes Lindsay Holmes. "The worse your sleep, the more vulnerable you are to thoughts and reactions that amp up your stress -- which, in a painful irony, makes it harder to sleep."

Holmes recommends deciding when you want to be ready for sleep, then setting two alarms: one to cue you to wind down and other 30 minutes later to let you know it's nearing bedtime.

For most people, powering down electronics becomes the biggest challenge for unwinding. I don't need to explain the inevitable can't-get-to-sleep aftermath of watching a disturbing late-night news report or receiving an urgent email where your brain goes on overdrive and you toss for hours in bed thinking about how to respond.

To remedy those situations, turn off TV but also put away laptops, smartphones, and yes, electronic readers about an hour before bed. Damon Beres mentions a study that found "reading from an iPad before bed not only makes it harder to fall asleep, but also impacts how sleepy and alert you are the next day."

Sleep doesn't just happen. You want to prepare for it. Instead of idly watching Sex and the City reruns or browsing the J Crew clearance sale before bed, establish a sleep ritual that helps you drift into deep, replenishing slumber.

Mine includes a hot bath with Epsom salts, chamomile tea, and a good (but not great!) novel. A friend of mine does 20 minutes of yin yoga before bed. Another meditates. I know if I meditate or try yoga before bed, I'll become stressed out. That's why you want to develop a ritual that works for you.

You might also try natural sleep remedies to slowly drift off. I like melatonin, a hormone secreted by your pineal gland that regulates circadian rhythm.

"Once you have the go-ahead from your doctor, the general rule on dosing is that for those of you looking for help with sleep, a dosage of about 0.5-3mg at bedtime is what you would need for insomnia or sleep issues," writes Dr. Julie Chen about melatonin supplements.

What's your ritual that helps you drift off into deep, replenishing sleep? Share yours below. And keep those great questions coming at Ask JJ@jjvirgin.com.

Additional References

Sara Gottfried, The Hormone Reset Diet: Heal Your Metabolism to Lose Up to 15 Pounds in 21 Days, (New York: HarperOne, 2015).