Stimulate protein synthesis before bed for maximum muscle building.
One of the biggest nutrition myths in our industry centers around food intake and sleep. People fear late-night eating based on the popular belief that our metabolism is reduced at night. This myth has led to the speculation that the body mysteriously shifts the food we eat toward fat and away from muscle. Firstly, it does not appear that overall energy expenditure during sleep is any different than during the day in non-obese individuals. Further, research published in the Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology shows that exercise can even increase metabolic rate and fat utilization during an overnight sleep. There is even direct evidence that consuming meals in the evening may be beneficial. A study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that consuming approximately 30 grams of either whey protein, casein protein, or carbohydrates prior to going to sleep equally increased resting metabolism and morning satiety. Another study, published in the journal Obesity reported that a six-month diet where carbohydrates were eaten mostly at dinner led to greater weight loss along with greater reductions in body fat and abdominal circumference. The evidence contradicts the myth that there is any advantage to limiting energy intake in the evening, and the fear of late-night eating needs to stop. On the contrary, perhaps we should be planning a proper midnight snack for optimizing body composition, and for those concerned with maximizing muscle growth, consuming protein before bed may offer even further benefits.
Giving The Signal
Before making recommendations to eat a pre-sleep protein meal, we have to understand the basics of how protein ingestion can promote muscle growth. The balance between muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein breakdown governs muscle growth. When protein synthesis exceeds protein degradation, gains in muscle size can occur. Along with lifting weights, dietary protein is a major regulator for promoting muscle growth. A single high-protein meal sparks muscle protein synthesis for up to three hours following ingestion. However, the muscle-building effect reaches a plateau following each meal, even when protein is overconsumed. This refractory response is often known as the “muscle full” effect. Hence, muscle protein synthesis appears to be regulated from meal to meal, rather than day to day. Evenly distributing protein intake across meals has shown to elevate muscle protein synthesis by up to 25 percent when compared to a more common skewed protein consumption pattern. Simply put, eating 20 to 40 grams of a high-quality protein source with a meal frequency of every three to four hours provides the best dietary stimulus for muscle growth throughout the day.
So how does all of this pertain to eating before bed? Although getting eight hours of sleep can be just as important as reaching nutritional goals for weight management and muscle growth, it also means you have to wait until morning to spark protein synthesis again. Going to bed in a fasted state may cause the body to shift into a catabolic state while you sleep—a time when you desperately need your body to shift into recovery mode. Properly fitting a protein-rich pre-sleep snack into your daily macronutrient goal can enhance muscle protein synthesis while you sleep, leading to greater gains in muscle size.
Don’t Fear PM Calories
Contrary to another popular nutrition myth, dietary nutrients are still effectively digested and absorbed as we sleep. A pre-bed protein snack or shake can stimulate muscle protein synthesis during this period of time when you are without food the longest. It may be that this is one of the best times to consume protein, as it can spike amino-acid levels in the blood and keep muscle protein synthesis elevated while you sleep. A study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, examined men who lifted weights in the evening and were provided a standardized diet throughout the day. A half hour before going to sleep, they ingested a beverage containing either 40 grams of casein protein or a placebo. Drinking the protein supplement prior to bed stimulated muscle protein synthesis during seven and a half hours of sleep, effectively improving muscle protein balance overnight. What happens if you add a pre-bed protein shake to your diet each night? Another study in The Journal of Nutrition showed that a late-night meal containing 28 grams of protein and 15 grams of carbohydrates significantly improved gains in muscle size and strength when consumed regularly during 12 weeks of resistance training.
While protein consumption throughout the day is essential for keeping muscle protein synthesis elevated, protein ingestion before sleep offers many benefits for promoting muscle growth. Given that during an overnight sleep you will remain fasted, the benefits of consuming protein before sleep may even outweigh other feeding times during the day. As long as nighttime eating does not disrupt your normal sleep cycle, the benefits of fitting a late-night meal into your daily macronutrient goals outweigh any associated risks. For example, if you eat 180 grams of protein per day, then save 30 grams for your pre-sleep meal. Evenly distribute the other 150 grams over however many meals you consume throughout the day. Choose high-quality protein sources including lean meats, fish, eggs, dairy, and whey protein. Slower-digesting proteins may be the best options before bed, as they will slowly release amino acids into the bloodstream keeping muscle protein synthesis elevated for longer hours into the night. These sources include casein protein supplements, milk proteins, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and lean meats. Whether you are looking to maintain your muscle mass or pack on some extra bulk, allotting protein for your midnight snack may prove to be very beneficial.
By Adam M. Gonzalez, PhD, CSCS