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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
Updated On: March 06, 2023
Every lifter on the planet knows that they need to be consuming plenty of protein. It’s one of the most essential nutrition variables that can either make or break your gains. As such, protein powder is the most common nutrition supplement on the market. When it comes to protein needs, you want to eat a serving about once every 3-4 hours. This is to ensure you have a continuous steady supply of amino acids so your muscles have what they need to grow. Every lifter knows this and most follow it...except at night. At night, we let our bodies go 7-10 hours without any protein intake and nobody bats an eye. So, that begs the question, “Should I eat protein powder at night?"
That’s what this article is all about. We’re going to explore the time in our lives where nutrition is rarely, if ever, mentioned.
Now, let’s explore the world of nighttime protein feeding…
Before we talk about if we should eat protein before bedtime, we first need to understand what protein is and why we take it in the first place. Proteins are long chains of amino acids which are vital for basic life function. While generally thinking of “protein” as the nutrient protein, we actually consume a variety of different proteins, which all have a specific role.
For example, a non-exhaustive life of proteins functions are:
However, we are worried about the nutrient protein today.
The nutrient protein primarily acts as a structural binding agent for different structures within the body. This includes the muscle, which is what we are discussing today.
If you’ve heard “muscles break down in the gym and grow at home”, you have a basic idea as to why protein is so important.
Protein’s primary function is to assist in the recovery and repair of damaged muscle, making it an intricate part in growing stronger muscles. As the phrase above implies, when we go to the gym, we lift weights, which actually causes damage to our muscles. In fact, this is one of the reasons we are sore after the gym as our muscles have been damaged and are inflamed.
However, breaking down the muscle is vital for muscle hypertrophy, assuming we are eating enough protein. Once we go home, we will eat all of our post-workout nutrition, which our body utilizes to help repair these muscles. However, our bodies will actually repair the muscles so that they’re a little bit bigger and a little bit stronger.
And this is why protein is so important to athletes and lifters, as it’s literally what puts our muscles back together when we kill it in the gym. If we didn’t, we would just be constantly damaging them.
When we look at protein consumption, there are two variables: total protein intake and when to take it, including recommendations for optimal protein shake timing. Out of the two of these, total protein intake is the most important. This refers to the total amount of protein that you consume throughout the day. At the end of the day, you need to be hitting your protein intake every day. In fact, your protein intake is the most important out of all your macros. And remember, this is daily! While mixing it up once in a while isn’t huge, you really want to hit your protein numbers consistently.
Now assuming you have your total protein intake under control, the next thing you need to consider is your protein timing. This refers to when and how often you eat your protein throughout the day.
Are you eating all of your protein in one setting? Or are you spreading it out into 5 servings? Are your meals spread out evenly or are they “just whenever?”
This is important because when you eat protein, you cause an acute increase in muscle protein synthesis. This refers to your body’s ability to regenerate muscle tissue and repair your damaged muscles. It’s simply when your body is in a heightened state of muscle building.
However, this elevated state is only transient. The International Society of Sports Nutrition states that while elevated MPS can remain elevated for 24-72 hours, peak elevation occurs within 3 hours. This means that optimal levels of muscle protein synthesis come and go as we consume protein throughout the day.
This is what causes so much confusion when people talk about the existence of the “anabolic” window. There is a difference between states of elevated muscle protein synthesis and states of maximal elevated muscle protein synthesis states (emphasis on maximal). It’s also why we said that total protein intake is most important as again, that will have the largest effect.
However, we want to maximize our muscle protein synthesis, so learning how to maximize muscle protein synthesis with our total intake is crucial.
Since muscle protein synthesis is optimized at 3 hours, we want to eat a serving of protein every 3 or 4 hours. Doing so will keep these levels at their maximal rates for the most consistent period of time throughout the day. When determining how much protein you should eat each serving, it will depend on your total daily protein intake. However, they should be roughly equal servings of at least 20g.
The optimal amount of protein intake will vary depending on the individual. That being said, for the athletic community, which includes weightlifters, you should eat 1.6-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight.
One of the most significant factors to consider is if you are gaining weight or trying to lose weight. You can actually eat towards the lower end when gaining weight, as your body has plenty of calories to support muscle.
However, when eating in a caloric deficit to lose weight, you want to eat at the higher end to support any type of muscle breakdown for fuel.
First, let’s make the distinction between eating protein “at night” and eating protein “before bed”. Sometimes these can get lost in context.
Eating protein “at night” could just refer to having a protein shake at 8pm. However, eating protein “before bed” refers to purposely consuming a serving of protein before you go to sleep.
An individual may consume protein within 30 minutes of going to sleep; usually, just a protein shake.
So, why would you want to do that?
Remember that we had just talked about how we see optimal protein synthesis for just 3 hours after consuming protein. We often talk about how this is important for optimal growth, yet we entirely neglect the time between dinner and breakfast.
Let’s look at how long this could be:
This means that, at a minimum, most people go for 8.5 hours without eating protein! This can go even longer depending on the person.
Again, this is fine if you’re not an athlete or gym trainee. However, if you’re consistent with the gym and trying to benefit from every hour in the day, having this massive gap in time where your muscles are starving should be a concern! Well, perhaps the word “starving” is a bit dramatic, but you get our point.
Sport researchers also began to notice this same thing. All the research is being done on if you should eat every 3 or 4 hours yet we seem to be okay about that 8-10 hours of no nutrition. It’s kind of silly to ignore as this is our body’s literal time to repair and recharge (sleep!). We often forget that our bodies are still very much working when we sleep, and providing some extra nutrition to work with could benefit.
To be clear, this does not mean we eat a monster shake with oats and peanut butter. It relates to a protein shake as in water (maybe milk) and protein powder only.
Therefore, over the past decade or so, research on bedtime protein began to grow, and results seem promising with multiple studies:
1. One simple study looked at the effect that casein protein had on functional recovery in professional soccer players. 10 players consumed either 40g of casein protein or 40g carbohydrate pre-sleep after a game. Then the next day, various performance variables were re-tested. Measured variables included soreness, counter-jump, and reactive strength. When compared to the carbohydrate group, the casein protein group had significantly better improvements.
2. A study was performed that examined the effect that pre-sleep casein protein has on overnight muscle protein synthesis. The research team had three groups of men and fed each group a different dose of casein protein:
First of all, all groups, regardless of dosing, saw a significant increase in muscle protein synthesis. However, there was also a dose-dependent response. This basically means that groups saw a more significant increase in muscle protein synthesis with the larger doses with 40g of casein eliciting the highest response. This is an excellent study that illustrates your body’s ability to utilize protein while you sleep, AND it can be maximized by eating more significant amounts.
3. One interesting study was conducted to look at the difference in consuming casein protein in the morning or pre-sleep. Two mixed groups of trained men and women performed an identical diet and training program, with the only difference in variables being the timing of their casein consumption. One group consumed casein protein in the AM, and one group consumed casein protein within 90-minutes of sleep; everything else was the same, including training program, total calories (relative to their body weight, and protein intake (relative to their body weight). Both groups improved in performance and composition variables. However, after 8 weeks, the pre-sleep group gained 1.2kg of fat-free mass while the morning group only gained 0.4kg of fat-free mass. This would seem to suggest that the period of time when we sleep plays a major role in muscle growth. Sure, we can still grow without it, but we can raise even more if we use it.
4. While we could keep looking at more studies, let’s just look at perhaps the most recent meta-analysis on pre-sleep protein published in February of 2021. For those unaware, a meta-analysis is an examination of all the available studies on a specific subject. It will analyze detailed studies and compare studies against each other to see if there are common findings. That being said, this meta-analysis concluded that;
“The consumption of 20–40 g of casein approximately 30 min before sleep stimulates whole-body protein synthesis rates over a subsequent overnight period in young and elderly men…In addition, pre-sleep protein consumption can augment the muscle adaptive response (muscle fiber cross-sectional area, strength and muscle mass) during 10–12 weeks of resistance exercise in young (men).”
So yeah, it seems pre-sleep protein is a pretty good practice to follow if you’re looking to optimize your training.
As you probably noticed, the vast majority of studies on pre-sleep protein have turned to a protein source called casein protein. Casein is very similar to whey protein as both are derived from milk. However, the major difference between casein and whey is the rate of absorption. Whey protein is known as a “fast-acting protein” since your body digests it quickly, causing a faster and higher jump in muscle protein synthesis. On the other hand, casein protein is known as a “slow-acting protein” whose absorption is slower.
What this means is that the spike in muscle protein synthesis takes longer and doesn’t reach the same level as whey. However, while the spike may not be as high, it lasts much longer than whey protein. This is precisely what we want when we sleep! After all, we can't take more protein mid-sleep.
While a high spike in muscle protein synthesis can be helpful after we train, it doesn’t need to be high as when we are sleeping. Further, we will not consume any protein for an extended period of time, so a more prolonged response will be more beneficial than a short spike.
Actually, there has been a new trend in sports nutrition where casein is favored as a” general protein” such as in the morning with breakfast. On the other hand, whey protein is used primarily as a post-training protein. The rising popularity of casein protein powders has increased the options available on the market. We've provided a look at our favorite casein protein powders out right now.
Further, one of the main concerns with pre-sleep protein is the fear that it can alter our metabolism.
So, is this true?
First of all, multiple studies have shown that pre-sleep protein can actually increase your morning resting energy expenditure. This means that assuming you are at maintenance calories or in a caloric deficit, pre-sleep protein will have no effect on fat gain.
Still, studies have shown that compared to consuming whey protein or carbohydrates before sleep, eating casein has zero impact on your fat utilization overnight. Further, hunger has shown to be blunted in the morning, which means that participants would naturally consume less in the morning.
The last piece of the puzzle is figuring out exactly how much protein you should eat. When examining the studies, the vast majority of them use larger amounts in the range of 30-40g. Plus, we can look back at the study, which saw a dose-dependent response in terms of the amount of protein consumed and length of heightened muscle protein synthesis.
Times varied from 30-90 minutes, with 30-minutes being the most common. Again, we need to realize that we take pre-sleep protein to raise muscle protein synthesis before we sleep. Therefore, we should consume it as close to bedtime as possible.
Sleep is single-handedly the most important aspect of workout recovery. At the same time, you’re just lying there doing nothing! It’s time we start taking advantage of this period of time as you’re literally doing nothing else. Utilizing pre-sleep protein and having a shake 30-minutes before your sleep requires zero extra effort and could mean additional gains. Free gains? Count us in!
Still, for bigger guys who need a surplus of protein, this is the perfect chance to add a serving to hit your numbers; and again, you could see more gains! See what we’re getting at? At the very worst, having a pre-sleep protein shake means making it easier to hit your daily protein intake. And at best… we’ll repeat it…it could mean more gains! Free gains! Why wouldn’t you try pre-sleep protein?!
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