Posted by Jackson Peos in Health / Nutrition
Estimated reading time: 7mins
Most of us will be quite aware that a high daily protein intake (~2g per kg of body weight) is required to maximise adaptations to weight training. These adaptations are of course gains in strength and muscle mass. For athletes with high training loads or those of us with frantic lifestyles or complex schedules, reaching that daily protein requirement can be a challenge.
A high protein requirement and a busy schedule can be a recipe for compromised nutritional strategies that delay muscle growth over time. Thus, to avoid “spinning our wheels” in the gym so to speak, implementing strategies to reach our daily protein threshold is paramount.
When looking inwards at our daily protein habits, most people will land at the post-workout protein shake solution as the first port of call. A wise and valuable strategy no doubt, however, I believe the importance of pre-sleep protein is just as valuable, and heavily overlooked by most.
We all know pre-sleep protein is important but does the protein source matter? The two most popular and well-researched protein powder sources are casein and whey.
Both of these proteins are derived from milk, yet they differ significantly in their capacity for maximising night-time anabolism. Both whey and casein are still high quality, complete proteins (meaning they contain all the essential amino acids for building new muscle protein) and are digested and absorbed readily.
To make whey and casein, special enzymes are added to warmed milk, causing the milk to coagulate and separate into solid and liquid portions. The liquid is the whey (which is washed and dried into powder), while the remaining curds are washed and dried to form casein powder. Now the rates of digestion and absorption are where these two proteins really differ. While whey digests quickly and may be a wise choice post-workout to cause a rapid increase of amino acids in the bloodstream, casein is digested very slowly, gradually releasing amino acids into the bloodstream over many hours. This is why you might notice that casein protein does not digest as well or as fast in your shaker. This is also why casein is a standout choice for a pre-sleep protein, keeping a relatively stable and high level of aminoacidemia (concentration of amino acids in the blood) while you’re not eating for 6-10 hours.
To learn more about the difference between whey and casein proteins, check out our blog on fast and slow-release proteins.
It is important to note that protein consumed before sleep is digested and absorbed at the same rate as when we are awake. The muscle still responds to a high concentration of amino acids in the blood during sleep by increasing muscle protein synthesis.
In a previous 12-week study this point was highlighted when a group consuming casein protein before sleep, after an evening weight training workout gained more strength and muscle mass than a group performing only the weight training, without the casein before bed.
It seems as though many lifters and athletes out there are hesitant to consume protein (or any calories for that matter) late at night in fear of disrupting body fat loss during sleep. However, the research tells us we have no reason to be frightened from late-night protein.
Several studies have indeed shown that supplemental protein before bed does not negatively impact rates of lipolysis (release of body fat into the blood) or fatty acid oxidation (fat burned for energy). Interestingly, in a small study of 11 active men, a pre-bed casein shake actually INCREASED rates of fat oxidation the next day. I think we can say at the bare minimum, that pre-bed protein, particularly casein, won’t make you fat while you sleep.
Thankfully, several research studies have shown that pre-bed protein consumption does not affect sleep quality scores or sleep onset latency.
We know new muscle tissue only grows, or existing muscle tissue repairs when the amino acids from protein (the building blocks) are available in the bloodstream. This is akin to muscle glycogen storage only occurring when there is available glucose in the bloodstream. But for protein it isn’t so simple, the body doesn’t store and release amino acids to maintain a constant circulation in the blood. Glucose does, otherwise, we would go hypoglycaemic and die! And so, a slow-digesting protein, a steady supply of amino acids into the blood while you sleep could significantly improve protein intake distribution over 24 hours, preventing levels from falling to a degree that might risk catabolism.
In a survey of over 500 athletes, the researchers found that the athletes were typically consuming at least 1.2g of protein per kg of body weight per day, however, on average were only consuming a total of 7g of protein in their final evening snack. This means it’s highly likely that while daily protein requirements may be met, low levels of amino acids in the blood during sleep may compromise night-time muscle growth.
Not exactly. In one study consuming 60g of protein powder before sleep did not change the muscle protein stimulus-response to a high protein breakfast the next morning. This tells us that the muscle growth effects of night-time protein appear to be additive.
Additionally, for those not tracking calories, having a night-time casein shake doesn’t appear to affect appetite the next morning. This means you don’t have to worry about not being able to stomach a high protein (or high calorie if need be) breakfast.
Your total daily protein intake is still going to be the strongest predictor of how much strength and muscle you gain from your weights program. With that said, having a more even spread of this protein intake over 24 hours preventing amino acids from reaching low levels in the blood is likely to prevent catabolism and/or enhance anabolism compared to only consuming faster digesting proteins during waking hours.
Casein protein is your best option for a pre-sleep protein, as amino acids are gradually released into the bloodstream over many hours. Perfect for when you’re asleep and not eating. A worthy investment for anyone looking for a small edge on top of the competition.