Consuming protein has become popular among athletes, bodybuilders, and active adults. Used by your body to build and repair muscle tissue, this macronutrient is an important part of bones, muscles, cartilage, and skin.
Our relationship with protein has changed over time. While it was once considered no more significant than carbs or fats, research has since shown that consuming more protein can help athletes maximize muscle growth, while protein may help others lose weight.
However, deciding when to consume protein remains somewhat confusing. While many consume protein post-exercise or as a breakfast substitute in the form of a protein shake, studies now show consuming protein before bed may provide the most benefit to your body. Let’s take a closer look at what protein is, how it benefits our bodies, and when you should consume protein to find the results you’re looking for.
What Is Protein?
Before we jump into the benefits of consuming protein before bed, let’s take a moment to look at this essential nutrient in greater detail.
As a macronutrient that’s essential for building muscle mass, protein is a necessary part of our diet easily found in animal products such as meat as well as in nuts, legumes, soy, hemp, and whey. Each gram of protein contains four calories of energy and comprises approximately 15% of an individual’s body weight.
On a chemical level, protein is made up of amino acids, which are organic compounds such as nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Once consumed, protein will fuel muscle mass, help you stay full, and promote a strong immune system.
The Institute of Medicine recommends 10-35% of your daily caloric needs come from protein. Most of us need approximately 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. However, the actual amount of protein you need will vary based on your age, sex, and level of physical activity. For athletes, this recommendation jumps to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
Why Consume Protein Before Bed?
When we consume protein, our bodies start to repair and build muscles. During this time, growth hormones elevate to increase muscle mass and decrease our reliance on fats.
If we consume protein before bed, evidence suggests we can then take full advantage of this growth hormone spike to truly maximize our muscle gains. A 2012 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that men who ingested casein protein, a slow-digesting dairy protein, before bed experienced greater muscle protein synthesis and post-exercise overnight recovery compared to those who consumed protein immediately after a workout.
Similarly, a study from 2015 found that healthy young men who completed a 12-week resistance training program and consumed protein before bed saw greater improvements in muscle strength, muscle size, and muscle fiber size when consuming pre-sleep protein.
While both studies failed to determine if the increase in protein intake or protein ingestion before bed was the cause of muscle gains, the International Society of Sports Nutrition has since determined that casein protein before bed will increase muscle protein synthesis and metabolic rate during the night. They went on to recommend nighttime protein intake for athletes who exercise early in the morning without eating and for those who exercise in the evening after dinner.
A final study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2015 examined the relationship between dietary protein supplementation before bed and muscle mass and strength gains in those who performed resistance exercise. Those who performed prolonged resistance-type exercise training before bed showed increased muscle strength compared to the placebo group.
Protein and Weight Loss
Research indicates having protein before bed may help with weight loss, but consider your daily caloric intake before you add protein to your nighttime routine. Your body will use protein to build muscle, but it will also see a protein shake as calories. Consuming more calories than you need in a given day will promote weight gain.
If you eat well and monitor your caloric intake, protein could prove beneficial because it boosts your metabolism and stimulates muscle growth. Increasing your metabolism will allow your body to burn calories quicker and therefore promote weight loss while you sleep.
More evidence seems to suggest protein shakes are beneficial when used as a meal replacement rather than a drink before bed. They control the portion of the meal without forcing you to skip a meal entirely. Keep in mind your total caloric intake is an important variable to consider when determining if protein shakes are right for you.
Is Protein Before Bed for Everyone?
We’re not all elite, marathon-training athletes, so we might question whether we need to consume protein before bed.
A study conducted in 2014 found that elderly individuals who consumed protein before bed had a more positive overnight, whole-body protein balance compared to those who took a placebo. This study showed that even non-active, healthy adults could benefit from protein intake before bed.
Other research, however, shows overweight and sedentary individuals who consume protein before bed may experience increased insulin levels the following morning. This could lead to weight gain (it appears true of both protein and carbohydrates). For this reason, it’s recommended that only athletes, elderly, and daily exercisers partake in pre-sleep protein ingestion.
What Kind of Protein Do You Need?
If you decide to consume protein before bed, you might wonder which protein sources to look for. There are two primary forms of consumable protein: dietary protein and supplemental protein.
Dietary proteins come from foods that contain a good source of protein. Some examples include poultry, seafood, tofu, legumes, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, eggs, and nuts.
While supplemental proteins are healthy, it’s recommended to get your protein from dietary sources if possible. That’s because protein supplements don’t contain the same nutrients you’d find in a full meal of dietary proteins. Supplemental protein may also packed with sugars, sweeteners, and might be high in calories.
Supplemental protein often comes in powder form and derives from plants such as soybeans or hemp, or from milk-based sources (as is the case with casein protein and whey protein). While these protein powders have many benefits, they’re not strictly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. That means they may contain unknown ingredients beyond powdered protein.
If you have trouble getting your recommended daily allowance of protein, consider implementing a protein shake into your diet. These are simple yet effective drinks that often contain enough protein to meet your daily needs.
Structure Your Protein Consumption
While protein is one of many beneficial recovery nutrients, athletes should consider a pre-sleep protein shake that incorporates carbohydrates. Because your body uses carbs for energy expenditure, consuming carbs and protein will replenish glycogen stores while facilitating muscle growth (not to mention this often tastes better as well).
Consider solid foods to satiate hunger, and add substances such as fiber to slow the digestion process even more. That way, you won’t wake up hungry in the middle of the night.
The Many Benefits of Protein Before Bed
Evidence supports utilizing protein intake as a means of promoting muscle growth and recovery. While most of us meet our daily recommended protein intake in our diets, athletes and the elderly should consider consuming protein before bed. However, this is especially true if you don’t get your daily allowance of protein from your diet alone. Use protein shakes or consume dietary proteins before bed if you stand to reap the many benefits that can take place.