Getting in some protein before bed “represents an effective dietary strategy to improve overnight muscle protein synthesis, thereby improving the skeletal muscle adaptive response to exercise training”.
Simply put, having some protein before bed at night increases muscle protein synthesis during sleep, which should result in more muscle gains over time.
At least this is what PhD student Jorn Trommelen and Professor Luc van Loon of the Maastricht University Medical Centre suggest in their new review paper on pre-sleep protein ingestion which was published this week in the Journal of Nutrients.
To better understand how exactly having protein before bed can help build muscle, it’s important to, first, briefly discuss what makes muscles grow.
What makes muscles grow?
This is what we asked Eric Helms in a recent interview on training for muscle and strength. His answer essentially came down to “progressively stressing the muscle over time and ensuring an adequate amount of volume is performed”.
That’s on the training side of the equation.
On the nutrition side, (which we talked about in our How to Build Muscle series – Part 2) what makes muscles grow is:
- a sufficient amount of energy (from your diet and/or from your existing body energy stores), coupled with
- enough dietary protein ingested frequently enough to result in, overall, higher levels of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) relative to levels of muscle protein breakdown (MPB) over time.
So, essentially, proper training provides the stimulus for muscle growth, while proper nutrition provides the fuel which “allows” muscle growth to happen.
Great, but how does this relate to our initial question of why having protein before bed helps muscle growth?
Enter the world of muscle protein metabolism and net protein balance.
Muscle protein metabolism
Muscle protein metabolism is a constantly-changing process which is characterized by the balance between the synthesis and breakdown of proteins in muscles.
The above is really just a fancy way of saying that proteins in muscles are built up and broken down all the time.
As you can see in the infographic below:
- A net protein balance – where muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and muscle protein breakdown (MPB) are, overall, equal – will result in maintenance of muscle protein.
- A net positive protein balance – where muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is, overall, higher than muscle protein breakdown (MPB) – will result in an increase in muscle protein.
- A net negative protein balance – where muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is, overall, lower than muscle protein breakdown (MPB) – will result in a decrease in muscle protein.
As we’ve explained before in the nutrition part of our How to Build Muscle series, an average-sized meal with a moderate amount of protein will increase muscle protein synthesis (MPS) for around 5 hours.
Eating protein much more frequently than that doesn’t seem to increase MPS more (because of something called “the refractory period“) and eating protein more infrequently means that you’ve lost an opportunity to spike MPS again.
Moreover, as research on the distribution and timing of protein has shown, evenly distributing your protein over a few main meals throughout the day stimulates muscle protein synthesis more effectively than having most of your daily protein in one or two meals.
This means that dividing your total daily protein equally into 3-5 protein feedings evenly distributed throughout the day may be optimal for maximizing muscle growth.
And this is where having protein before bed fits in.
Why having protein before bed is beneficial
As you can see, the reason that having protein before bed is beneficial isn’t because it’s some sort of “magical” time frame but, rather, because having protein before bed means that:
- you are stimulating muscle protein synthesis once more during the day
- you are stimulating muscle protein synthesis during the longest post-absorptive period of the day (that of sleep)
With the above in mind, it’s logical to infer that trainees who want to maximize muscle growth should take advantage of every opportunity to maximally stimulate MPS, including during the pre-sleep period.
As the researchers conclude:
dietary protein ingestion prior to sleep may represent an effective dietary strategy to inhibit muscle protein breakdown, stimulate muscle protein synthesis, facilitate the skeletal muscle adaptive response to exercise training and improve exercise training effectiveness.
What type of protein should we be getting before sleep and how much of it?
Type and amount of protein
Since sleep is the longest post-absorptive period of the day, it makes sense that the type and amount of protein you will have before going to bed at night will influence the overnight MPS response.
With regards to the type of protein, we know that some types of protein (such as micellar casein and animal-based protein sources) are digested more slowly than other types of protein (such as whey and casein hydrolysate).
This is important, since having a slowly digesting protein before bed will result in a less pronounced but more prolonged rise in blood levels of amino acids, thereby supporting MPS throughout the entire night.
This is, after all, why we included both whey and casein in our list of the top 5 muscle building supplements the use of which is supported by science.
With regards to the amount of protein, previous research on protein ingestion before sleep suggests that around 40 grams of protein are needed to sufficiently increase overnight MPS rates.
Our recommendations in short
So here is what we recommend for those of you who want to maximize muscle growth:
- Set your total daily protein intake at around 1g per pound of lean body mass
- Divide your total daily protein intake equally into 3-5 protein feedings per day
- Spread out your 3-5 protein feedings evenly throughout the day
- Make sure that you have some protein first thing when you wake up, after training and before going to bed at night
- Make sure that your protein feeding before sleep is comprised primarily of slow digesting protein (e.g. casein, dairy, eggs, meats)
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