When is the best time to take protein before bed? And what kind of protein should you take before you sleep?
Dear Fitness Nerd,
How soon before bed should I drink protein? Right before, or a specific number of minutes before before I actually go to sleep? Thanks! — Bob
The issue here is less about the timing of when to take protein before bed, as it is what kind of protein to take before you go to sleep.
You should try to consume your last serving of protein as close to your bedtime as is comfortable for you. Whether that’s a protein shake before bed, or a whole food souce of protein before sleep is up to you.
Some people experience no problems eating and then immediately going to sleep, while other people find sleeping on a “full stomach” uncomfortable. If you find that taking a protein-heavy snack right before bed interferes with falling asleep, then give yourself at least 30-40 minutes between the snack and bedtime.
The idea here is to simply get some slow-digesting amino acids into you before you go to bed, since you’ll essentially be in a fasted-state overnight. This can help blunt catabolism (muscle breakdown) during the nighttime hours. This is even more important if you are exercising in the evening.
Your protein and energy requirements during sleep will be less than during the day, so even if you eat your snack 60 minutes before bed (consuming between 20-30 grams of slower digesting protein) you should have plenty of protein to get you through the night.
So I wouldn’t sweat the timing of when to take protein before bed too much.
What’s the Best Source of Protein To Take Before Bed?
There are really four optimal times during the day to take in extra protein:
- In the morning when you first wake up
- 60-90 minutes before your workout
- Immediately after your workout
- Before bed
In the first three instances, whey protein is generally your best bet because it is rapidly digested by your body and makes amino acids quickly available at the time you most need them — in the morning when you are essentially waking up from a 7 hour fast, before you workout, and right after you exercise.
But the protein before bed is different.
Since you’ll won’t be eating for 6-8 hours (depending on your sleep patterns, of course) you’ll want to actually slow down the absorption of protein while you sleep, ensuring you have enough to get your through the extended “fast.”
You can do this a couple of ways.
- You can switch the type of protein you are eating. While whey is digested fairly quickly (within 90 minutes of consumption, depending on the foods you eat with it) other sources of protein take longer for the body to break down and make available. These include things like protein from meat, fish and the king of long-digesting proteins: casein.
- Eat other foods along with your protein that slow digestion.Whether you choose casein, whey protein or chicken breast as a pre-bedtime snack, you can slow the digestion of any protein by consuming other foods with it, like dietary fat and/or fiber. Eating some healthy fats that are high in MUFAs, such as nuts or nut butters, along with your protein before bed can extend the digestion period and cause the protein to be absorbed more slowly.
Casein versus Whey or Meats Before Bed
Casein protein is the what you’ll hear bodybuilders typically recommend as a good protein to take before bed.
Casein is one of two primary proteins in milk (whey is the other.) While whey is admired because it is rapidly digested in the body — making it ideal for a post-workout recovery drink — casein is the exact opposite.
When casein protein hits the stomach it curdles — slowing down the bio-availability of the amino acids. Eventually, your body will digest the majority of the proteins in casein, but it takes time — between 6-8 hours.
While this wouldn’t be optimal immediately following a workout, it’s ideal before bed. Think of casein as an overnight “protein drip” when you are in bed.
Casein Protein Powder or Whole Food Sources Before Bed?
Casein protein can be bought in a powdered form like whey protein or soy protein isolate, but you can also just as easily get it by eating whole food sources of casein protein before you go to bed — things like skim milk, yogurt, quark, cottage cheese or kefir.
In fact, both milk and cottage cheese are excellent sources of whey and casein protein. For example, a one cup serving of low-fat cottage cheese has 24 grams of protein — the majority of which is the slow-digesting casein variety. This is about equal to a single scoop of casein protein powder.
My point here isn’t to discourage you from using casein powder or drinking a protein shake before sleep, but rather to let you know that there are other “whole” clean eating foods that you can eat before bedtime that may be just as effective — and probably less expensive, tastier and more enjoyable than a scoop of casein.
What If I’m Lactose Intolerant?
If you have a dairy allergy, casein may not work for you.
In those cases, you’ll probably have to use other sources of slower-digesting proteins from things like meat, poultry or fish before bed. You could also experiment around with soy protein isolate or egg protein, and slow the digestion by consuming some healthy fats along with it. Eating fibrous vegetables alongside the protein and healthy fats can also help slow digestion.
Under these circumstances, a good pre-bedtime protein snack might be bowl of tuna salad with some light mayo and a handful of almonds or nuts. In general, even when consuming sources of casein protein like cottage cheese before bed, eating some nuts or natural peanut butter along with it is a good practice.
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