Quality sleep is essential for optimal growth – it’s when numerous biological process get to work to repair the damage caused during training, and daily life.
It’s during REM sleep when our bodies enter a heightened anabolic state, which rejuvenates and repairs the immune, nervous, skeletal and muscular systems.
A number of internal processes occur at night to make this happen, in particular, a pronounced anabolic hormonal response.
These processes release important growth factors, such as human growth hormone (hGH) and testosterone during the night to stimulate the repair process. In fact, over 90% of your daily hGH supply is actually released while you sleep and peaks during later sleep stages.
However, while everything else is working to aid recovery, our bodies also need a steady nutrient supply to repair damaged muscle tissue and replenish whatever was depleted during training. Without a sufficient amino acid supply, free fatty acids and glucose, the anabolic process is unable to run its course.
In addition, when the natural hGH release stops and you run out of amino acids to synthesise new protein, our bodies enter a state called nocturnal post-absorptive muscle catabolism or NPMC. This happens every night, and it is a natural process that cannot be stopped.
However, there are ways to mitigate how much muscle tissue is lost to the process.
#1: Night-time fuelling
To help fuel the nocturnal anabolic process and limit the effects of the catabolic state that follows (this is an important distinction), there are a few tools at our disposal.
One of the more controversial methods suggested is reversing the generally recommended dietary pattern of consuming most of your calories in the morning, with a steady decrease in calorie consumption over the course of the day, with your smallest meal eaten at night, a few hours before bed. However, this conventional wisdom is increasingly being challenged.
One of the main reasons is that a large, late-night meal provides the volume of macronutrients needed to support the initial anabolic repair phase when hGH and testosterone levels are at their highest. A continued steady supply of amino acids will then help to mitigate the muscle breakdown that occurs during NPMC.
If you’re eating ‘clean’ and your total calorie consumption throughout the day remains constant, it may be of benefit to shift the calorie values of your meals to favour your morning meal, to break the night-time fast, and your evening meals, to support the initial nocturnal anabolic process. Your post-workout meal would be your other big meal of the day.
The other option that has been adopted by many bodybuilders over the years is night-time feeds – waking up at strategic points during the evening for a meal. However, this is very disruptive to natural, healthy sleeping patterns, and diminishes the overall quality of your sleep.
#2: Supportive supplement strategy
Thankfully, advances in supplementation have delivered suitable solutions in the form of a range of specifically formulated protein products that deliver a slow, sustained amino acid release throughout a majority of the night.
These products contain slow-digesting proteins like casein, which fulfil a specific function in the night-time battle between protein synthesis (building new muscle tissue) and muscle breakdown.
These products provide a steady supply of amino acids that are slowly digested and released into the bloodstream for up to eight hours throughout the night.
However, their role seems to be linked more closely with limiting the natural catabolism of muscle tissue during the later stages of sleep than fuelling anabolism. Either way, there is value to consuming a casein-based protein supplement before bed.
Combine and conquer
There may also be some value in combining certain foods and supplements. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that a supplement that combines protein sources to include fast-digesting forms such as whey and slower-digesting variants such as soy and casein, may offer an ideal solution.
The initial rise in circulating amino acids from the whey help to fuel the initial anabolic process, while the continued ‘trickle’ of amino acids released from the soy and casein support the anti-catabolic process described earlier.
The inclusion of natural healthy fats, normally in the form of natural and organic nut butter, helps to slow gastric emptying, which slows the digestion process even further, delivering more of these essential macronutrients to muscles over a longer period of time.
The use of dairy products at night has also proven to be beneficial in a number of studies, as cow’s milk contains both whey and casein fractions. For this reason, it is not uncommon for bodybuilders to bump up the protein content of their bedtime snack or supplement by mixing in some cottage cheese or mixing their protein blend in milk instead of water.