Protein has become a bit of an enigma in our culture. While it is an essential macronutrient vital to tissue repair, hormone production and muscle growth, you’d think most of us are sorely lacking it the way protein products like bars, shakes and powders are so heavily marketed and available.
According to the Mayo Clinic, most Americans meet or exceed their protein needs, especially men between the ages of 19-59. But for some, getting adequate protein can be struggle. Others looking to maximize athletic performance may want to find ways to optimize their protein consumption. When paired with exercise, recent studies show that drinking or eating protein before bed may be a way to accomplish that.
Protein before bed: are there benefits?
Sleep is a key part of this equation because it is so essential to good overall health. We need it to restore and adapt to the stressors of life, including exercise. Quality sleep helps us recover from the damage exercise does to our muscle fibers. Protein before bed can help supply the body with important nutrients while we sleep, which is our most important recovery phase.
A growing selection of relatively small studies have pinpointed muscle-building benefits of consuming protein before bed, particularly by drinking protein shakes. A 2016 study focusing on protein ingestion after resistance-based exercise training found that protein consumed immediately prior to sleep increases amino acid availability overnight. Greater amino acid availability during the night proved to stimulate muscle protein synthesis rates.
Muscle protein synthesis is a naturally occurring metabolic process that produces new muscle protein to repair muscle damage and build muscle mass and strength. So, protein consumption before bed can potentially drive muscle growth and recovery.
A new study in 2023 supplied both whey and casein protein products to 36 healthy, young men who then went to sleep two hours after a 60-minute session of endurance-based training. This study found that pre-sleep protein also led to an increase in mitochondrial and myofibrillar protein synthesis rates during overnight recovery, which could be music to the ears of those who focus on moderate-to-high intensity aerobic and cardiovascular exercise.
This study showed that protein before bed can increase endurance adaptations, which can be helpful for endurance athletes who typically consume low amounts of overall protein relative to other athletes.
More research needs to be done to determine whether protein before bed promotes weight loss and weight management, but research in both men and women shows that consuming pre-sleep protein for healthy weight individuals does not seem to negatively impact overnight fat metabolism.
To summarize, eating protein before bed can help:
- Build and repair muscle.
- Increase endurance adaptation.
- Improve athletic performance.
What kind of protein is best before bed?
Slow-release or slow-digesting proteins are proteins that typically take four hours or more to digest. These proteins are optimal for muscle repair and recovery while you sleep. Casein – a dairy-based, slow-digesting protein – can provide a lift to athletes focused on adding muscle mass. Pea protein is a slow-release plant-based option for vegans.
Non-powder foods that are considered slow-digesting proteins include:
- Nut butters
- Fatty fish
- Eggs and egg whites
Drawbacks and considerations
Generally, people who are physically active and looking to add or maintain muscle should eat 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. It’s important to note that protein recommendations for healthy adults depends on their activity level.
Eating right before bed isn’t recommended for everyone. Some studies show that eating before bed can cause a spike in insulin levels the next morning for those who are overweight or obese.
According to a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, consuming roughly 30 to 40 grams of protein before bed provides an increase in overnight muscle protein synthesis and metabolic rate. Remember, to maximize these benefits, athletes need to perform high-resistance or endurance-based trainings during the day on a consistent basis.
Average adults who exercise regularly – but aren’t necessarily high-level athletes – can aim to add 10 to 20 grams of whole-food-based protein before bed to reap benefits. If safe you for to do so, you can hit that 10-to-20-gram window by fixing these snacks before bed:
- A two-ounce slice of chicken breast.
- One cup of 1% milk fat cottage cheese.
- One slice of bread spread with a nut butter and one glass of 1% milk.
- A single serving of plain, non-fat Greek Yogurt with berries.
- Three hard-boiled eggs.
If you do opt for a protein supplement, the Mayo Clinic suggests imposing these restrictions:
- Use a product that has 200 or fewer calories.
- Use a product that has 2 grams or fewer of saturated fat.
- Do not use a product that contains trans-fat or partially hydrogenated oils.
- Make sure the product has 5 grams of sugar or fewer.
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