Does Eating a Pre Bed Protein Meal Lead to More Muscle Gains?
What You Will Take From Reading This Article:
- The science behind how building muscle works
- Why you can eat at night, even before sleep
- How eating protein before bed could help with muscle retention and gains
- How much protein you need before bed to reap the benefits
- What kinds of protein sources to consume before bed
Everyone worries about eating before they sleep. From fat loss troubles to spiked insulin, you’ve probably heard many reasons why you shouldn’t have food late at night. The one reason you haven’t heard might be the best reason to start planning a late night snack.
You see, late night eats might be pocket aces for more muscle gains.
But before we explain how and why, lets breakdown why late night eating is so misunderstood.
One of the biggest nutrition myths to date is the ever so popular don’t eat past 6 pm or at night because all of the nutrients consumed will somehow magically convert to fat.
Sofer and colleagues showed that consuming carbohydrates mostly at dinner for 6 months resulted in greater weight loss, abdominal circumference, body fat mass reduction, more satiety, and less hunger (1).
The experimental group had higher levels of adiponectin, a hormone associated with increased insulin sensitivity and fat burning. They also had a trend for slightly higher leptin levels. Leptin is a fat regulating hormone that plays a significant role in fat oxidation.
In other words, no matter what people will insist, the fat loss mechanisms of your body appear to have no problem with later meals.
Another reason you might want to eat at night relates to your training. If you exercise in the evening, it becomes even more necessary to enjoy a pm meal. When you work out you cause an acute catabolic situation and your muscle does not become anabolic again until you consume sufficient protein. You also get an increase in insulin sensitivity by working out so you can more effectively tolerate and utilize carbohydrates post workout.
Additionally, if you train at night you need nutrients to properly recover. Insulin sensitivity is high after a workout, so it’s okay to eat a high amount of carbs at this time and not worry about storing excess carbs into fat.
Your metabolism doesn’t say, “Hey it’s night time, so that means I have to store these carbs into fat cells.” There’s nothing about night time that changes your metabolism or reduces your insulin sensitivity.
Keep in mind that if you are doing intense exercise you will have pretty good glucose and insulin homeostasis due to the high level of physical activity. Meaning if you’re exercising doesn’t matter what time of the day it is, your body will be able to deposit glucose into muscle cells rather than fat cells (2, 3).
We brought this myth up because the fear of eating at nigh has other consequences specific to gaining muscle.
Specifically, how nighttime protein ingestion (pre-bed) or protein ingestion during the middle of the night to keeps muscle protein synthesis levels elevated. You know this as the age-old question: Should you eat cottage cheese, down a casein shake, or even be like Jay Cutler and wake up during the night and eat a meal?
While more research is still needed for a definitive answer, you might be surprised by the potential of what a little late night protein could do for your body.
The Foundation of Muscle
To understand why late night eating may be ready for a breakthrough, it’s best to understand how we build muscle in the first place. That brings us to Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS). To quote the great Professor Stuart Phillips:
“Imagine your muscle as a brick wall, when new bricks get delivered these are the amino acids from proteins, on one end of the wall there’s a process to put bricks in which is muscle protein accretion and on the other end of the wall you take bricks out which is muscle protein breakdown. Protein synthesis is the bricks end of the wall and bricks out of the wall is protein breakdown and the net difference between the two are net muscle protein balance and this would be the rate at which your making things and subtracting at which the rate your breaking them down, if that’s in a positive direction the wall gets bigger (i.e., muscle growth) or if it’s in the negative direction your muscle shrinks. Protein ingestion and resistance training is a potent stimulus to make the brick wall bigger and stronger (i.e., stimulate the protein synthetic process).”
In Layman terms, muscle protein synthesis is a process of removing or repairing damaged proteins and building new proteins that are replicas of the original. Muscle protein synthesis is the rebuilding of muscle tissue and it occurs as a result of the stresses that we place on our body (i.e., training).
The Sleep-MPS Relationship
Sleep is crucial and we all know that there’s plenty of research out there that getting adequate levels of sleep is needed (4). But what you tend to forget is when you sleep for 6-8 hours your body goes into a fasted state and doesn’t receive any nutrients during this time. It would only seem logical that muscle protein synthesis levels and amino acids tend to dwindle down as well.
Norton and colleagues showed that the duration of protein synthesis in response to a complete meal containing protein, carbohydrates, and fats is approximately 3 hours long. Therefore, it seems that a complete meal might keep MPS elevated up to 3 hours after you fall asleep if you eat before bed (5).
What was interesting about the above study is that even though protein synthesis levels went back to baseline after 3 hours, plasma amino acids and specifically leucine levels were still elevated.
This makes sense in the context that low muscle protein synthesis rates during overnight sleep could be simply attributed to the limit of plasma amino acid availability throughout the night.
Which brings us to our point: why not have a protein meal or shake before bed or during the middle of the night to keep protein synthesis elevated if you are going to sleep for 6-8 hours?
So long as it doesn’t disturb your sleep, offset your 24-hour calorie and macronutrient cycle, or causes extra stress, then adding that late night meal isn’t as much a risk as a potential for enhanced muscle building.
The Myth Of Nutrient Breakdown
There isn’t an on and off switch in our bodies where we decide to use nutrients.
High level athletes, physique athletes, and active people can use nutrients at almost any time of the day for a specific purpose. Sure our bodies can handle nutrients better before and after training, but that doesn’t mean that we have an off switch the rest of the day. Recently, data has pointed out that a small protein dose of 150 calories before bed actually increases muscle protein synthesis while you are sleeping in both young and older men (6).
We asked Mike Ormsbee, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Exercise Science and Sports Nutrition at Florida State University to weigh in on this subject of night time eating:
“In 2010, we published a number of studies that look at eating at night — just small portions. If you’re eating small, 150-calorie, protein-dense meals before bed, we’re finding that it improves muscle protein synthesis and you can actually maintain muscle mass in your sleep, which is great for athletes trying to recover or older individuals who are trying to maintain muscle mass as they age.
We did this work in fit men and found an improvement in their metabolisms. The only group that did not find any improvement was the group that did not eat anything before going to sleep. (These findings were published in the British Journal of Nutrition.)
We repeated this design in obese women, and we found that eating protein at night improved some markers such as blood pressure and metabolic function especially when combined with exercise training (7).”
Moreover, Professor Luc J.C, van Loon who has done an extensive amount of work on night time eating showed that ingestion of protein prior to sleep represents an effective nutritional intervention to increase plasma amino acid availability, stimulate post exercise muscle protein synthesis, and improve whole body protein balance during overnight sleep (8).
Van Loon and colleagues found that by eating protein before sleep helped put your body in a muscle growth environment throughout the night.
To further support the topic of night time eating we asked Professor Stuart Phillips from McMaster University his thoughts:
“A pre-bed snack or a ‘midnight’ protein shake stimulates protein synthesis, and likely suppresses protein breakdown during the period time when you’re without food the longest. It may be that this is one of the best times to think about protein ingestion as it stimulates muscle protein remodeling and repair during a time when that’s exactly what your body is doing anyway. Proteins higher in the amino acid tryptophan may even aid in sleep latency and quality although this requires some further work (9)”
On the contrary, we had Eric Helms weigh in on this topic:
“Well the big issue here is that basing protein intake on muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is probably not a good idea. MPS doesn’t correlate to changes in muscle mass (10.) The vast majority of studies measuring MPS don’t take into account muscle protein breakdown (MPB) (11). Meals consumed not only elevate MPS but also suppress MPB which must be considered rather than simply the dose required to maximally stimulate MPS (12) as MPB is half of what determines net muscle protein balance. So I would be skeptical basing any nutritional strategy off of MPS data alone.
Second, the recommendation of interrupting your sleep cycle to get up and eat is premature until you can definitely say that eating at the expense of sleep will result in overall better outcomes for muscle mass gains (or retention if dieting), which I’m very skeptical of considering the importance of sleep. Finally, considering there is not yet convincing evidence that any calorie and protein matched meal frequency within the range of 3-6 is superior (13), I’d be surprised if eating a meal in the middle of the night, or immediately before bed had a functional impact. Consider that when you eat 3 meals per day, dinner is typically 6 to 7 hours after lunch, which is about the same length of a sleep cycle. So, if it made that much of a difference, than meal frequencies over 3/day should be beating out 3 per day or less.
But that’s not the case, in fact there is the odd study out there showing greater maintenance of lean body mass with as little as one meal per day compared to higher frequencies (14) , but I’m not suggesting that you only eat one meal per day, just pointing it out to illustrate that perhaps we need to more completely investigate more frequent or less frequent feedings of protein (i.e., using actual methods of body composition change and performance rather than just MPS) before we make recommendations. Now all that said, if it’s no stress eating a slow digesting protein meal before bed, and doesn’t offset your 24 hour macronutrient or calorie targets, then go for it, even if it only has limited evidence to support doing so, it certainly can’t hurt.”
Wrap up and Take Home Points
The myth that we can’t or shouldn’t eat past 6 pm or at night time because all of the nutrients consumed will somehow magically convert to fat just simply doesn’t hold up. Especially what the research shows in high level athletes, physique athletes, and active people being able to use nutrients at almost any time of the day for a specific purpose.
It also makes sense that low muscle protein synthesis rates during overnight sleep could be simply attributed to the limit of plasma amino acid availability throughout the night. Having protein before bed or in the middle of the night elevates plasma amino acid levels and will keep muscle protein synthesis levels elevated. Some take home points we suggest are:
- Moore et al. showed that 20g protein is sufficient to maximally stimulate protein synthesis after resistance training (15). Therefore having approximately 20g of high quality protein before bed or during the night in a liquid form should be plenty.
- If you usually wake up in the middle of the night to use the restroom, then simply have a 20g of liquid protein shake (single scoop of protein) waiting for you to gorge down. But we wouldn’t recommend setting an alarm or disturbing your sleep cycle by any means.
- If you have a high carbohydrate allotment for the day, try both protein and carbohydrate in your sleep cycle shake, both appear to be useful, although protein (casein or whey) before bed might be best according to the current research for muscle protein synthesis and metabolism (16,17).
- Be sure to not offset your 24 hour macronutrient or calorie targets. For example, simply deduct 20-40g of protein from your total day’s protein allotment and place it into a sleep cycle shake during the middle of the night. If you eat 200g of protein per day, then save 20g and evenly distribute the 180g over however many meals you consume throughout the day.
- If you are just an active gym goer that follows a balanced diet and just wants to look good naked, then try eating a small 150 calorie liquid shake or ½-1 cup of low fat cottage cheese before bed to improve muscle protein synthesis, overnight metabolism, and cardiovascular hemodynamics.
- What kinds of proteins to consume before bed? Opt for higher quality protein sources such as: Lean beef, chicken, eggs, milk, fish, turkey, etc. You could also have slower digesting and more satiating protein sources such as: Eggs, lean beef, cottage cheese, casein shake, etc.
- If you are in a calorie deficit and you don’t want to use your daily protein macros, you could supplement with 9g of BCAA’s in the middle of the night when you use the restroom. However there isn’t research to support that BCAA’s will enhance muscle growth or increase performance, but it will induce MPS and this goes back to the discussion earlier about keeping MPS elevated throughout the day (18). Also, keep in mind that supplementing with BCAA’s has calories.
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Special Thanks to:
- Eric Helms
- Stu Phillips
- Mike Ormsbee
- Sofer S, et al. Greater weight loss and hormonal changes after 6 months diet with carbohydrates eaten mostly at dinner. J Oby. 2011 Oct: 19(10):2006-14.
- Frosig C, Richter EA. Improved insulin sensitivity after exercise: focus on insulin signaling. 2009
- Maarbjerg SJ, Sylow L, Richter EA. Current understanding of increased insulin sensitivity after exercise – emerging candidates. 2011
- Redwine et al. Effects of sleep and sleep deprivation on interleukin-6, GH, cortisol, and melatonin levels in humans. 2013
- Norton LE, Layman DK, Garlick PJ, Brana D, Anthony TG, Zhao L, Devkota S, Walker DA. Translational controls of skeletal muscle protein synthesis are delayed and prolonged Associated with ingestion of a complete meal. 2007 E
- Res PT, Groen B, Pennings Bet al. (2012) Protein Ingestion Prior To Sleep Improves Post-Exercise Overnight Recovery. Med Sci Sports Exerc 44(8), 1560-1569.
- Mike Ormsbee, Assistant Professor of Exercise Science, Florida State University, http://aboutresearchtest.magnet.fsu.edu/extraordinary-thoughts/2014-03-21-Nighttime-Eating
- Van Loon, J.C, L. Protein ingestion prior to sleep: Potential for optimizing post exercise recovery. Sports science exchange. 2013
- Phillips, S. Ingested Protein Dose Response of Muscle and Albumin Protein Synthesis After Resistance Exercise in Young Men. J of Clinical Nutr. 2008
- Mitchell et al. Acute Post-Exercise Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis Is Not Correlated with Resistance Training-Induced Muscle Hypertrophy in Young Men. 2014
- Helms et al. A systematic review of dietary protein during caloric restriction in resistance trained lean athletes: a case for higher intakes.2014
- N, Wolfe. R. Is There a Maximal Anabolic Response to protein Intake with a Meal. 2013
- Schoenfeld et al. Effects of meal frequency on weight loss and body composition. 2014
- Stote et al. A controlled trial of reduced meal frequency without caloric restriction in healthy, normal-weight, middle-aged adults. 2009
- Moore et al. Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. 2009
- Takudzwa A, et al. Night time consumption of protein or carbohydrate results in increased morning resting energy expenditure in active college aged men. British journal of nutrition. 2013
- Snijders, et al. Protein Ingestion before Sleep Increases Muscle Mass and Strength Gains during Prolonged Resistance-Type Exercise Training in Healthy Young Men. 2015
- com. Branch Chained Amino Acids. http://examine.com/supplements/Branched+Chain+Amino+Acids#summary5-0