Quit Counting Sheep: find out which foods can help you get a good night’s sleep

What foods may help with sleep, and which don’t? Dr A Bolin takes a look.

Do you sometimes lie awake at night counting sheep? Have you noticed that your skin can look dull and lack-lustre if you’re not getting enough shut-eye? 

Getting a good night’s sleep is indeed related to your skin health and studies have shown that a chronic lack of sleep quality is associated with increased signs of skin ageing, impaired skin barrier function and an increased dissatisfaction with appearance.

When you sleep your body is busy repairing damage and building collagen. If you don’t get enough, it’s ability to do this is diminished.  

And as we know, there is a variety of things that can affect your sleep cycle, or ‘circadian rhythm’, including travelling to a different time zone, lighting levels, shift work, your nutritional health and what you eat and drink before bed. The next question is, what can you do to make sure you do get enough sleep?



The facts: skin health, sleep and melatonin

No doubt you’ve heard of melatonin.  It is a hormone naturally produced in your body by the pineal gland.  It does not make you sleep but research has shown that it has a calming effect that encourages your body to sleep, according to Johns Hopkins sleep expert Luis F. Buenaver, Ph.D., C.B.S.M.).

It is popular for people who travel a lot and want to get over jet lag, and in the US it is taken by 1.3 million people as a supplement. In the UK, however it is only recommended for those who have a diagnosed sleep disorder. It is not recommended for everyone as it can have side effects for people with epilepsy or those who are on certain blood thinners, like warfarin.

The good news is, a good diet can help you manufacture melatonin.

In this video Dr Zoe Schaedel talks about foods that can help you sleep.


What can I eat to promote boost melatonin levels?

A nice balance of proteins and carbs should do the trick.

Protein-rich foods are broken down into amino acids.  One particular amino acid, tryptophan, is converted to serotonin (a neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation) and then melatonin. Vitamin B6, also known as pyridoxine, is a precursor to melatonin.  It is found in white meats, eggs, grains and vegetables.

Carbohydrate rich foods tend to make people sleepy and also help make the tryptophan more available to the brain.             

Protein-rich foods include:

  • salmon
  • halibut
  • tuna
  • chickpeas
  • hummus
  • turkey
  • chicken
  • pistachio (and other nuts).



  • whole grain bread
  • rice
  • potatoes
  • oats
  • pasta.

Carbohydrate-rich foods tend to be absorbed quickly.  They have a glycemic index which causes a rise in blood sugar levels and then a surged release of insulin.  This has an effect of increasing chemicals (tryptophan and serotonin) that help relax and decrease anxiety.  


What about minerals? Can they help?

Yes. Calcium, magnesium and potassium are important when it comes to good sleep.

That cliche about ‘warm cup of milk’ before bed is more than just an old wives tale. Calcium helps the brain use the amino acid tryptophan, which in turn helps manufacture the sleep-inducing melatonin.

Sources of calcium

  • milk
  • yogurt
  • kale and other leafy greens
  • cheese.

Milk and many dairy products contains the amino acid L-tryptophan. Greens such as kale and spinach are also rich in calcium.


Potassium and Magnesium

These two elements are essential for muscle and nerve function – and good sleep. It is thought that low levels of potassium (Hypokalemia) may interfere with sleep as it can cause muscle spasms.

Magnesium helps regulate and calm nerves, nerve activity and is involved in melatonin production.

If you don’t have enough magnesium, it can affect your health and your sleep and has been associated with insomnia.

You should be able to get enough magnesium and potassium from your diet, and foods to look out for include:


  • bananas: rich in potassium, magnesium and the amino acid L-tryptophan (which is converted to serotonin).  
  • whole grains such as barley or bulgur wheat, which are rich in magnesium
  • tart (sour) cherries and sweet potatoes. These are packed with calcium, magnesium, and potassium.  
  • prunes – these contain vitamin B6, calcium and magnesium.
  • almonds. These nuts are loaded with tryptophan and magnesium.

It may seem logical that if these minerals are good at promoting sleep you should take a supplement, but unless you have a diagnosed deficiency it is best to get them through a healthy balanced diet.


Food to avoid before bedtime?

While some foods are good at promoting sleep – there are some you should avoid. They include:

  • caffeine (tea, coffee, energy drinks). Consider drinking decaffeinated coffee and swap black tea for chamomile tea, red bush (roiboos) tea or other decaffeinated teas.
  • nicotine
  • pizza and burgers, high fat meals (take longer to digest)
  • if you have acid reflux avoid acidic foods (citrus, tomato based sauces), fizzy drinks and spicy foods as they can lead to heartburn in some people
  • processed meats (salt can make you thirsty)
  • excess alcohol. (It may knock you out but you don’t get good, quality sleep.)


What else can I do to help me get my beauty sleep?

The NHS has recommendations for your pre-bedtime routine at

It includes having a regular bedtime, having a comfortable temperature in your bedroom and not too much light, as well as making sure you wind-down before you get into bed.

If you feel as though your lack of sleep is having an impact on your mood, skin or health, make an appointment to discuss it with your GP.

There is growing evidence that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBTi) can also help. Ask your doctor for details.