Shaun Ward MSc ANutr
The conversation about dietary protein intake and muscle-building is never ending.
One thing that is certain is that to effectively build muscle it is a physiological requirement to ensure muscle protein synthesis levels remain higher than the rate of muscle protein breakdown (on average).
In the absence of dietary protein intake, it is not possible to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, and therefore the net muscle protein balance will remain negative.
However, there is more to the story than just to “eat protein”. The muscle protein response is modifiable to the type, amount, distribution, and timing of dietary protein ingestion.
Recently, the concept of protein ingestion prior to sleep has been introduced as an important moment to increase daily protein intake and increase overnight protein balance, which could further maximize the skeletal muscle adaptive response.
The theory is that by providing a night-time supply of essential nutrients for overnight recovery, this will further support muscle reconditioning and improve physical performance.
But is it really necessary? Let’s take a look at the science:
Protein Distribution Matters
A large body of evidence now clearly demonstrates that protein distribution across the day matters – a lot.
This is based on two main reasons:
- There is a limit to the maximum stimulation of muscle protein synthesis from a single meal, said to occur with intakes of 20-40 grams of protein   . Excess protein beyond this range at a single meal is not thought to incur additional benefits, which rules out the option to just consume the entirety of one’s daily protein intake in a single meal.
- The anabolic response to dietary protein has shown to be transient, meaning muscle protein synthesis levels can only be elevated for ~3 hours before returning to baseline levels . This occurs despite sustained amino acid availability and anabolic signaling within the muscle cell .
Based on these factors, current expert recommendations are to consume ~20-40 grams of protein every 3 hours to keep muscle protein synthesis levels raised as much as possible throughout a 24-hour period .
And real-world results support such findings, as those with balanced distributions of daily protein intake have greater 24 hour muscle protein synthesis rates when compared with an unbalanced distribution, along with superior results in terms of muscle-building  .
So What is Special About Protein Before Bed?
Every meal signifies a distinctive opportunity to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, and hence each meal may have an additive effect towards muscle gain.
Therefore, on paper, a morning meal is just as important as an evening or pre-bed meal.
However, the pre-bed meal can be viewed as even more important as people will soon be undergoing a long period without food – 6+ hours when sleeping.
As such, failure to consume a morning meal will still give opportunity to consume protein in the coming hours, however failure to consume a pre-bed meal could leave you avoiding muscle protein stimulation for a significant portion of the night.
So although it is just a meal like any other, the potential negatives that come with skipping such a period to ingest protein has greater consequences.
Current research is in support of this, with pre-sleep protein ingestion being necessary to signal an anabolic stimulus and impact overnight muscle protein synthesis rates, which likely enhances muscle tissue growth and reconditioning .
Further, although there is some skepticism about how able the gut is to function during sleep, the administration of 40 grams of protein during sleep has shown to be normally digested and absorbed, and just as capable of impacting muscle protein synthesis rates compared to consumption during the day   .
In athletic populations the benefits are also clearly apparent, with 40 grams of casein protein before bed leading to ~20% higher muscle protein synthesis rates during the night compared to a pre-bed placebo drink .
Over the course of 3 months in healthy young men, such a nutritional protocol has led to significantly greater increases in skeletal muscle mass and strength compared to those that avoid pre-bed protein ingestion .
As a side note, due to the importance of sleep quality and quantity, studies have also noted that pre-bed protein has no effect on sleep onset latency, sleep quality, and/or next morning appetite .
As such, pre-sleep protein ingestion can be considered as a crucial moment to increase total daily protein intake and improve overnight protein balance, with no negative side effects. Win win.
Great sources of protein for pre-bed are greek yoghurt, cottage cheese, fresh meat, and casein protein.
New science points towards the importance of protein timing throughout the day, instead of focusing purely on daily protein quantity.
This is because the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis from a single meal has a limit and is generally only measurable for 3-4 hours.
The pre-sleep meal is of particular importance because it is not possible to consume food for 6-8 hours during sleep.
Therefore, to ensure the body has the appropriate nutrient stores during sleep to fuel recovery, it is logical to supply the body with adequate protein (20-40 grams) just before bed.