Why You Need a Bedtime Snack
Sleep. It mentally recharges you for the next day, rests your heart and rebuilds damaged muscles to prime you for another day of training. Sleep is also a time of fasting. If you eat dinner early and don’t snack before bed, you may go 12 hours or longer without fuel. The longer you go without food, the more likely your body will be to deplete stored muscle glycogen (carbohydrate energy) and turn to muscle protein to keep you going throughout the night.
Athletes who go to bed hungry set themselves up for diminished returns on their training. A dramatic overnight fast like that can leave you feeling sluggish and decrease your athletic performance if you train in the early morning.
You need to eat in a way that promotes anabolism (the building of muscle). This is especially important while you sleep, as your body secretes hormones that promote muscle protein synthesis. The best way to promote overnight anabolism and decrease catabolism (the breakdown of muscle) is with a bedtime snack.
Now, this isn’t a free pass to chow down on a banana split or a greasy burger with fries. Exceeding your caloric needs for the day will still result in the accumulation of excess body fat. You should opt for a bedtime snack high in slow-digesting protein that will stabilize your blood sugar levels and fuel muscle growth. (Here are some of the best sources of protein for athletes.)
A 2012 study was the first to examine the effects of protein intake immediately before bed and its impact on protein metabolism and muscle protein synthesis. The study followed 16 young men who engaged in resistance training in the afternoon. All of them consumed a post-workout recovery snack within 30 minutes after exercise. Later that night, half the participants were given either a placebo or a 40-gram casein shake 30 minutes before bed. The results showed that the casein-fed subjects had elevated levels of circulating amino acid levels throughout the night, resulting in increased protein synthesis rates. This could lead to bigger, more powerful muscles.
You’re probably asking yourself, “what is casein?”
Milk contains two kinds of protein: whey and casein. Whey is digested very quickly, sending amino acids to muscle tissue rapidly. This is why so many athletes consume it right after exercise. Casein, on the other hand, digests more slowly. It provides a steady stream of amino acids over several hours, which makes it ideal to consume before bed.
High-quality casein supplements can be found at your local sports nutrition store. You can also simply drink a tall glass of milk, to get both the whey and casein protein (although in much lower concentrations). Other foods to consider before bed include low-fat cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, canned tuna, hard boiled eggs and sliced turkey. A snack 30 minutes before you hit the sack can help build bigger, stronger muscles. Just remember that exceeding your requirements for the day can quickly increase your waistline as well.