To eat or not to eat protein before bed?
It’s a good question that’s haunted bodybuilders since time immemorial.
Today, I’m putting this question to rest, with some hard science.
But before you start looking into optimizing protein dosing, you must make sure your fundamental bases are covered.
What do I mean by this?
Following an intelligent, progressive weight training program, with a solid nutrition plan comes first.
- Are you consuming the optimal number of calories per day?
- Are your daily macronutrients covered?
- Are you following a progressive resistance training program, properly?
Because if you’ve not got these things sorted, taking some protein before bed is not going to help you.
However, if the three elements I’ve mentioned above are covered, then it’s time to look at things like optimizing protein frequency and dosing to get the most gains for your efforts.
Of course, you know that protein is the most crucial macronutrient for building muscle, but growing is not as simple as chugging a protein shake.
Muscle growth occurs only if the rate of muscle protein synthesis (the building of muscle-specific protein) exceeds the rate at which muscle tissue is broken down (catabolized).
…and that’s why we eat protein, to stimulate the synthesis of new muscle proteins.
Protein is one of three macronutrients (the other two being fat and carbohydrates).
Comprised of amino acids, this critical nutrient functions as a physiological building block, building, and maintaining bodily tissues: Bones, skin, blood, cartilage, and of course, muscles.
Protein is also utilized to produce hormones, enzymes, and other chemicals, as a molecular transportation agent, and for cellular communication.
In other words, it’s important stuff!
But you knew that already.
So, let’s talk about how taking in protein at bedtime effects muscle growth.
Eating Protein Before Bed
It’s long been postulated that saving your last dose of protein before bed is a good way to maximize muscle growth.
After all, doing so should elevate protein synthesis while you sleep.
But does it?
According to recent research  from the Journal of Nutrition, volunteers who lifted weight thrice weekly while receiving a drink containing 27.5 grams of protein and 15 grams of carbohydrate before bed experienced considerable increases in strength, and in muscle fibre size.
It’s worth noting that study participants were already consuming high-protein diets, indicating that gains made were not merely on account of correcting a dietary deficiency, but rather, directly related to pre-sleep protein consumption.
And a few years ago, the same research group found a significant twenty two percent increase in muscle protein synthesis  among those who consumed protein prior to bed.
To really illustrate the positive overnight impact of protein ingestion just before bed, take a look at this:
What you’re seeing here is the results from taking 40g of casein protein just before going to bed. The results from the study shows a significant spike of protein synthesis, resulting in an extended positive protein balance over 9 hours of sleep.
Graph A from the study shows that rates of protein synthesis are higher than protein breakdown. This condition builds muscle, but drops off around 5 hours after the last meal, leaving a long period where protein synthesis levels are flat.
Graph B from the study proves that pre-bed protein ingestion spikes protein synthesis and puts you right back in the muscle building zone.
These studies prove that eating protein before sleep is a great way to maximize muscle recovery and growth.
Now, I could end this article right here, but there’s some more ground I want to cover.
Stimulating Synthesis: How Much Protein Before Bed?
The question on how much protein to eat has provoked much debate.
Without getting into the finer specifics, the general consensus is that 20 to 40 grams of high-quality protein – that’s one to two scoops of a typical whey or casein protein supplement – is adequate to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis and stave off catabolism.
Unfortunately, protein synthesis does not increase exponentially in proportion to consumption.
Researchers at McMaster University found that 40 grams of protein did stimulate the most synthesis, but only slightly more than – not double that of – 20grams.
However, 20 grams of protein resulted in considerably more synthesis than 10 grams.
Such results are the rationale behind the recommendation to eat 20 to 40 grams of protein, several times a day.
You can read more about optimal protein dosing in this post.
Best Protein Sources Before Bed
So, we’ve established, through scientific studies, that protein before bed is a good thing – it’s going to help fill the overnight gap in the muscle building process, to maximize results over 24 hours.
Let’s now talk about some of the best whole-food and supplementary sources of protein suitable for eating before bed.
Whole Food Sources of Protein
Supplementary Sources of Protein
Of the aforementioned supplementary protein sources, whey and casein reign supreme.
Whey powder – the best known and most easily available protein supplement – is a dry, concentrated form of liquid whey – a byproduct of cheese production.
Considered the standard against which other proteins are judged, whey requires relatively little time for digestion, absorption, transport and metabolization.
Within 30 to 60 minutes of ingestion, blood-levels of the amino acids that comprise whey peak. After approximately one hour, protein synthesis occurs.
Remember how we said that muscle growth depends on the rate of muscle protein synthesis exceeding that of muscle breakdown?
That’s exactly what happens, especially in the short term, when a fast-acting protein like whey is consumed.
Casein, like whey, is derived from milk. Unlike whey, which naturally comprises approximately twenty percent of the protein in milk, casein accounts for a whopping eighty percent.
Both whey and casein are “complete”, containing all nine amino acids essential to human health, and are excellent sources of leucine, isoleucine and valine – anti-adipogenic, energy-boosting branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) that aid in muscle protein synthesis, prevent muscle catabolism, and reduce visceral fat.
Compared to whey, casein is “slow”, requiring three to four hours before peak amino acid levels and protein synthesis occur.
That may not sound like a good thing, but this isn’t bad news, because casein, by virtue of its slow-burning properties, helps prevent catabolism longer than whey, while prolonging muscle protein synthesis.
You may want to consider supplementing with both whey and casein at night. It’s not a simple matter of which is better – each has its strengths, and combining them provides the advantages of both fast- and slow-burning proteins.
With that said, either one would do, and as we’ve already seen, a protein shake before bed containing 40g of casein alone is effective, by maxing out muscle protein synthesis over several hours of restful sleep.
The Testosterone Factor
From the aptly-named journal, Sleep, comes research  showing that men who slept eight-hours had slightly more than double the morning serum levels of testosterone than those who slept four hours.
The take-home message is that sleep – especially enough of it – results in nocturnal testosterone spikes.
And testosterone is highly anabolic, playing a vital role in the formation of muscle.
Sufficient sleep duration doesn’t just allow you to enter the deepest stage of sleep, during which muscle fibres heal and grow, but causes more testosterone to be released, setting the stage for increased gains in size and strength.
Clearly, sleep and protein makes for a powerful anabolic mix.
Your muscles grow when they’re resting – outside of the gym, and when is the body more at rest than when you sleep?
Sleep is categorized by stages, and it’s during Stage 3 – 4 (also known as non-REM) delta wave or slow wave sleep that tissue recovery, repair, and growth occurs.
At this stage, growth hormone and testosterone is released, blood supply to muscles increases, muscles are fully relaxed, and breathing slows.
Since slow wave sleep occurs later in the night, it stands to reason that the closer to bedtime protein is consumed, the longer into your sleep cycle amino acids will circulate, and the more that muscles will recover and grow.
Deep, restorative sleep, combined with pre-sleep protein feeding is an effective way to increase muscle mass.
Will Eating Protein Before Bed Make You Fat?
In a word, no.
An excessive calorie surplus makes you fat, not a small amount of protein.
You’re only looking to ingest around 30g of protein, you’ll get that from 40g of a typical whey protein powder, which comes in at around 150 calories.
Gaining body fat from your pre-bed meal is only going to be a problem if your 30g of protein comes from a 700 calories cheese burger. This kind of madness prior to sleep will invariably lead to unwanted weight gain, irrespective of when those cheeseburgers are eaten.
Get your protein from good quality, lean sources before bed, to build a lean, muscular physique.
Lean proteins have a positive thermic effect, meaning they burn more calories when being metabolised, digested and absorbed.
Bottom Line with Pre-Bed Protein
We grow by consuming regular doses of protein, which increases muscle protein synthesis, and we have 24 hours each day to maximize this process.
You should be resting and sleeping for 8 – 10 hours per night, it doesn’t make sense to have protein synthesis levels plummet during this time, just because you’re unconscious doesn’t mean your muscle stop growing.
Protein, as I’ve covered in previous posts, shouldn’t be consumed in excess, but in optimal moderation. From the current scientific research, I recommend 30 – 40 grams at each meal, several times a day, and one right before bed, in conjunction with any good weight training regimen, will help you make the most gains.
Now, go hit the gym, or, depending on what time it is, make yourself a protein shake, and hit the sack!