As kids, we all looked at superheroes with a sense of awe – not just for their heroic acts of fending off the bad guys, but also for their seemingly flawless muscular bodies. In fact, I know of more than one guy who started working out in order to emulate their favourite superhero.
While most superheroes got their powers as a result of exposure to radiation, a genetic mutation, or coming from another planet, there's one who was just an ordinary guy, Batman. Sure he had billions of dollars and tons of gadgets, but I was always the most impressed by Batman because he was just as muscular as the others, but didn't have any real superpowers.
The reason I'm telling you this is because I've recently discovered Batman's secret weapon for muscle growth. No, it isn't a result of some fancy new training gadget that only he could afford, or because he gets an extra T boost from making out with hot chicks like Catwoman. Hell, it's not even because he changes actors every damn movie he makes! The real secret behind Batman's muscular physique lies in his lack of fasting throughout the night. While he's running around at night fighting crime, he occasionally takes a break for a protein shake.
This means that he gets less sleep than the average guy, but he also maintains a longer anabolic state and minimizes muscle catabolism at the same time. Batman also uses nighttime meals when dieting to actually help strip off fat! You'll note that the sidekick Robin looked nothing like his mentor, and that's because he was too damn lazy to get off his ass and eat at night. Hell, I think that even Alfred the butler could have kicked Robin's pansy ass! Anyway, let's see if we can apply some of Batman's vast knowledge to our own muscle growth and fat loss.
You may remember a previous article by John Berardi in T-mag touching on nighttime eating (along with pre-sleep eating) in "Bedtime Story: A consumer report about nighttime protein powders," but this one will focus specifically on the topic.
I'm still amazed by the consistency and dedication with which most hardcore guys follow their daily diet, yet allow for a catabolic starvation phase every single night. I mean, most bodybuilders (competitive or not) eat every 2-3 hours for a variety of reasons (which have been hammered into you more often than you can count). Then they go for up to 10 hours without eating anything!
While you may not actually sleep for 10 hours straight, you should realize that even going 6 hours without food puts you into an easily avoidable catabolic situation. The solution is to simply consume one or two nocturnal meals to maintain body energy stores and protein synthesis, or at the very least minimize protein degradation.
Now based on the looks of the faces of most athletes I suggest this to, you're either laughing or shaking your head in disbelief. Unfortunately, the immediate reaction of most people is to reject this idea and claim: "there's no way in hell I'm gonna wake up in the middle of the night to eat!" But after hearing me out, they realize that it's much easier than it sounds, and that the improvements that can be made are definitely worth the minor hassle. Of course your significant other will think you're crazy, but they'll love the way your body starts to look after awhile.
Our Brain and Sleep
In order to optimize how nocturnal feedings affect our bodies (i.e. maximizing the positive and minimizing any potential negative effects), we must first understand what happens when we sleep. Often people think of sleep as simply a rest period where the body shuts down, but nothing could be further from the truth. Oxygen usage (representing metabolic demand) for example, can be as high in the brain as it is when we're awake! So sleep can actually be a relatively active period for us, depending on the stage.
Without going into the boring details, you should know that sleep is actually divided up to different stages depending on how deep it is, with Stage 1 being the lightest all the way through to the very deep stage 4.
Much, but not all, of our dreaming occurs in yet another stage called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. (It should be noted that the band by the same name isn't actually an acronym for anything, it's just REM.) We cycle through these various stages every night, beginning at stage 1, going through the other stages until we get to stage 4 and eventually, REM.
The reason you should care about all of this is because when we wake up, we want to be in REM or a light sleep stage. Waking up in another stage can lead to a groggy and lethargic feeling. Worse yet, if we try going back to sleep, we have to start back up at stage 1 and go through the different stages until we get back to where we were.
Since we can't pick and choose which sleep stage to disrupt by waking up, our goal is to ensure that we minimize the amount of time we're awake so that the sleep cycle isn't actually disrupted. Fellow UW strength coach Nick Polasek has a great idea that describes the ideal situation for waking up in the night to eat: "You want to have your drink right beside the bed, fall asleep, only to wake up 8 hours later to discover your drink container empty." (If you do this, make sure your drink is stored in some kind of insulated cup and has some ice in it.)
In other words, you want to wake up for such a short time that you're not even 100% awake, but are simply able to consume your liquid meal while not even realizing it. This situation would absolutely minimize sleep disruption, and any potential negative effects once you're awake for the day.
Along with the cycling of our sleep stages, we also have a cycling of many other regulatory processes in our bodies, including protein turnover (protein synthesis and breakdown) and hormone production. These constitute the natural body rhythms we call circadian rhythms.
Some people feel that nocturnal feeding can actually screw up these natural hormonal rhythms, resulting in reduced ability to put on muscle mass and greater fatigue during the day. What's interesting is that both endurance (Kern W et al., 1995) and resistance exercise (McMurray et al., 1995) alter hormone output while we sleep. But these minor alterations neither make us small or tired. In fact, it's also well known that exercise can actually elevate energy levels, and we know for damn sure that workouts put on muscle! So if done properly, you shouldn't worry about screwing up your hormone balance or making yourself sleepy during the day.
While on the topic of hormones, the main circadian rhythm we need to be concerned with, is related to insulin and our body's sensitivity to it. Insulin sensitivity starts off great in the morning and decreases as the day goes on. This means that early in the day, our bodies have to secrete little insulin in order to get the desired effect, while later on we have to secrete much more to get the same effect. This is why people suggest eating most of your carbs earlier in the day; to take advantage of the great sensitivity resulting in lower insulin levels (and therefore less insulin-related health problems, including fat storage).
Now this thought process is a major concern for nocturnal feeding, because some people might think that our overnight fasting resets the horrible insulin sensitivity we have late in the day, making us very sensitive in the early part of the day. If we apply this theory, we can imagine that eating at night may prevent this resetting of insulin sensitivity, resulting in us having horrible insulin sensitivity all the time (and therefore getting fat)!
Fortunately for us, it seems as though insulin sensitivity varies with the time of day irrespective of nocturnal changes in blood glucose (Van Cauter, 1991). In other words, we can have a steady influx of carbs throughout the night, yet maintain our insulin sensitivity. Spiking our insulin through the use of high glycemic index (or insulin index) carbs would NOT be advisable at night, as this would most likely have a negative impact on our insulin sensitivity. As a precautionary measure, type 2 diabetics should not consume food nocturnally.
It's also noteworthy that studies done on glucose consumption at night have only been conducted on a single night basis, and no long-term studies measuring insulin sensitivity have been done. Finally, nocturnal feedings are contraindicated for people with sleeping disorders or leptin resistance.
The Joker Steals our Muscle at Night
We all know that our bodies don't stop requiring nutrients and energy during the night, even though we don't usually provide it with either. This means that our bodies have to draw from it's own sources; in a sense we are fasting. For example, some of our cells may need amino acids throughout the night, and if we don't provide them constantly we must break down our own body proteins to supply them.
We're not even talking about our muscles not growing at this point – it's way worse than that – we're actually talking about our hard earned muscle being broken down. Let's take a closer look at what happens to our muscle at night, and the effects of nocturnal feeding.
Sadly, many people don't consider nocturnal feedings because they only sleep for 6 hours or so. What's scary is that carb breakdown can begin as little as 3 hours after a meal, at least in rats (Palou et al., 1981). While rats have a much higher metabolic rate than humans, our elevated muscle mass greatly increases our own rate. What's more, after a workout our metabolic rates are even higher than the already elevated "normal," so we're actually a lot more like rats than we'd ever like to think.
Protein breakdown then begins 6 hours following our last meal, a situation that we can easily avoid. If you don't find this to be a big deal, keep in mind that actual muscle protein synthesis declines far earlier than catabolism begins – so we're not even putting on muscle for much of that pre-catabolic phase.
Consuming carbs alone was an early example of night eating. The reasoning was to offset any catabolism by increasing insulin levels in the blood. Additionally, the carbs consumed would maintain body glycogen stores, allowing one to be more ready for morning workouts or athletics. It's been shown that overnight glucose infusion, without protein or amino acids, can increase nitrogen balance and decrease protein turnover in cirrhotic patients with no effects in healthy controls (Zillikens et al., 1993).
While this may seem like a knock against nocturnal feeding, we need to consider two important points:
- These subjects were NOT trained and were done on the sedentary people you see everyday on the street. We need to be careful about how we transfer these results to trained people who already have greatly elevated metabolic rates – especially within the first 36 hours after exercise when metabolism is even higher than normal.
- More importantly, we have to realize that there were no protein or amino acids provided in this trial, so we wouldn't necessarily expect protein synthesis to be elevated. We can't have our bodies trying to build muscle when it's protein starved. In other words, you can't build a house without the building materials!
The fact that protein metabolism was improved at all, in any condition, without providing amino acids is truly an amazing finding. Additionally, this study supports the idea that nocturnal feeding can maintain body carbohydrate stores, so you'd be better prepared for a morning workout. To further illustrate the importance of protein intake vs. carbohydrate and fat consumption during a fast, one study examined the effects of different nutrient combinations on protein synthesis. In animals starved for 2 days, subsequent feeding had no effect on muscle protein synthesis unless protein was present (Yaman et al., 2000)!
How Batman Gets His Muscle
You may be looking for a little more than a cape and pointy ears before following anyone's dietary practices. In fact, you've probably been disappointed by using the diets of other muscular guys and now look for advice strictly from guys who know their science. But before we immediately dismiss the issue based on our first impressions, we need to remember the wisdom of Homer Simpson: "Batman's a scientist." So, we have the best of both worlds, and can use the advice no matter what we're looking for!
Unfortunately, muscle protein synthesis can fall to as little as one half its level in a fed state, after as little as a 12 hour overnight fast (Baillie and Garlick, 1991). This shouldn't be surprising since protein synthesis needs amino acids to actually make protein. So no amino acids = no protein synthesis.
You may be unnerved to know that in addition to decreased protein synthesis, protein breakdown increases in muscle following a 12-hour fast in humans. If you put these two measurements together, you may see that there's a net release of amino acids from muscle. Why does this happen? It's actually to provide our gut with amino acids during times of starvation. That's right, our bodies break down our muscle so it can increase protein synthesis in our gastrointestinal system (Meek et al., 1998)!
Fortunately, food consumption (including protein) quickly reverses this condition, putting our muscles in an anabolic state. This exemplifies another reason for nocturnal feedings; providing protein to other tissues so they don't have to steal amino acids from our hard-earned muscle! In other words, eating protein nocturnally can have an anticatabolic effect.
One study actually infused only three amino acids overnight and saw a pronounced anticatabolic effect in muscle (Louard, et al. 1995). While you may initially be surprised that only three amino acids can do this, discovering that they were the Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA'S) may make the findings less shocking. Although protein synthesis was not elevated in this study, this finding was not unexpected since the infusion lasted 16 hours and no other amino acids were provided during this time. You would certainly expect that other amino acids are needed to synthesize muscle proteins, especially after such a long infusion – a fact which the authors also note.
We also know that elevating amino acid levels in the blood will increase muscle protein synthesis levels (Biolo et al., 1997) at least temporarily, so nocturnal feedings also have the potential to increase muscle protein synthesis. This double whammy of combining decreased protein breakdown, with increased protein synthesis, is the main reason for the effectiveness of nighttime eating on muscle growth.
Of course this information alone is enough to start waking your butt up in the middle of the night, but we have yet to explore the most important aspect of night eating: after workouts, when the greatest effect will be felt.
With all of the concern for post workout meals these days, you'd think that we'd be more concerned with nighttime nutrition following a workout. I've had athletes come to me who work out two hours before they go to bed, have a post workout liquid meal, then one solid meal and they're off to bed – fasting for the next eight hours.
While you can see the obvious problem here, we can't ignore the nocturnal fast even if you work out in the morning. This is because protein synthesis can remain elevated for up to 48 hours afterward (Phillips et al., 1997), so even with morning workouts we could greatly benefit from night eating. Metabolic rate is also elevated for more than a day following a workout (Schuenke et al., 2002), making the fasting catabolism even worse since our bodies need more energy during this time.
What happens is that when we sleep following a workout, our bodies are trying to build muscle, but can't efficiently do so because of a lack of protein. By preventing this fast through nocturnal feeding, we can take full advantage of our muscles' anabolic potential following a workout. Unfortunately, protein breakdown is also elevated after exercise (Biolo et al., 1997). You can immediately see that the potential for the combined effect of workout induced catabolism, and our normal nighttime fasting catabolism, can be a bit problematic when it comes to muscle growth.
Once again, eating in the middle of the night may reduce the catabolism from both independent stimuli, resulting in a much favorable environment for muscle growth. A final benefit of eating in the middle of night after a workout may be to provide energy – in the form of fat or carbohydrate – for protein synthesis. This will also provide our body the energy it needs, since overall metabolic rate is elevated for 36 hours after a workout (Schuenke et al., 2002).
Riddle Me This, Fatman
Many of you are asking yourselves how nocturnal feedings will affect fat loss, or even fat gain. If your spider sense was already tingling about this (shit, wrong superhero), then pat yourself on the back, because this is an important point. If done improperly eating in the middle of the night is the fastest way to put on fat or put the brakes on fat loss. BUT, if done properly, eating in the middle of the night can be a great way of actually enhancing fat loss.
The Potentially Ugly Side of the Two-Faced Coin
It's important to remember that insulin sensitivity is decreased for most of the time while we sleep, and the excess energy we put in our bodies may not be burned off as easily as it would in the day time (despite our metabolism not being as low as most people think).
If you're on a calorie restricted diet, the overnight fast helps greatly with fat burning, so we need to be careful about what we eat nocturnally. Eating too many carbs or too much fat will put the brakes on the desired fat burning, and may even reverse the process to add fat. Yes, even Sumo wrestlers are encouraged to eat at night to help with "weight" gain. In fact, nocturnal feeding is such a problem in the common population that it even has a clinical term; "Night Eating Syndrome"!
Now before you freak out and vow to never eat at night, keep in mind that this syndrome refers to people waking up in the middle of the night and eating a cheeseburger – NOT a smart idea. It's also important to remember the metabolic differences between us (guys who work out hard), and your average sedentary (and already overweight) person. Not only will our elevated metabolic rates help keep the fat off – especially the night after a workout – but we're also far more disciplined in what we eat, and nocturnal meals are no exception. If you started reading this article expecting to have an excuse to wake up in the middle of the night and eat ice cream, you're probably reading the wrong magazine.
Before getting to the actual diets, we need to explore the rationale behind nocturnal eating while on a calorie restricted diet. Basically, the nighttime catabolic fasting period is far worse for muscle during a calorie restricted diet. But how do we prevent this muscle catabolism when we need to be slightly starved in order to have some fat burning? The answer is simple: Protein. Consuming protein alone during the night will not blunt fat breakdown to nearly the same extent as consuming carbs or fat will. It will also help suppress the muscle breakdown that's happening at an accelerated rate.
In fact, I'll even be so bold as to say that the amount of metabolically active muscle that you'll save through this practice will actually enhance fat loss better than fasting for several hours without protein! We also know that the thermic effect of protein consumption is far greater than that of either carbs or fat, which is yet another reason that protein will help with fat loss. So much for the Sumo theory of nocturnal feedings (besides, Batman could kick any Sumo wrestler's ass any day)!
Why not Time-Released Proteins?
I'll just defer to my colleague John Berardi's words on the subject of alleged time-released proteins that would theoretically (at least by manufacturer claims) keep your body in an anabolic state all the time:
"So it's clear that keeping amino acid levels elevated all day [and all night] won't keep protein synthesis rates racing along. It's my guess that if you were to try to do this, breakdown would simply balance synthesis and you wouldn't get any bigger. It's my theory that you need those phasic bursts in amino-acid levels to stimulate protein synthesis.
"...this presents a confusing picture as to how to time your meals for optimal protein growth. In my opinion, large bursts of hyperaminoacidemia every few hours (to stimulate synthesis in a phasic manner), coupled with a prolonged low-level hyperaminoacidemia (to chronically inhibit breakdown), may be the best way to coerce the muscles into getting huge."
I don't want to regurgitate what John's already written about, so if you're even thinking about using alleged time-released protein products, definitely read John's "Bedtime Story".
Sample Nocturnal Meals
Keep in mind that these are just general examples of meals that one could consume, varied by the desired goal. Be sure to adjust them to your own metabolic rates, food availabilities, and tastes.
1 Meals for Muscle Mass
- 1 scoop combined casein/whey protein (20g)
- 400mL 2% Milk
- 4 arrowroot cookies
- 2-3 table spoons flax seed oil
This meal is for people who don't consume enough calories during the day and need a bit of a boost. Examples of such people include hardgainers, extreme ectomorphs, and guys on a cycle.
Rationale: The protein comes from both the powder and milk, resulting in a quick burst from the easily digested whey, followed by a slower anticatabolic release from the casein. The milk and cookies provide quickly consumable sources of carbs that will elevate blood sugar, but will not result in an insulin spike because of the fat ingestion.
Contraindications: This meal is unsuitable for anyone on a calorie reduced diet, or anyone who puts on fat relatively easily. If fat gain is experienced with this variation, move on to Meal 2.
2 Anti-Catabolism Meals
- 1 scoop combined casein/whey protein (20g)
- 250mL 2% Milk
- 1-2 tablespoons flax seed oil
This meal is suitable for most people wanting to limit the amount of nighttime catabolism, but put on too much bodyfat from the calories and carbs of Meal 1.
Rationale: The protein is the same as Meal 1, though slightly reduced from the smaller quantity of milk used. The carbs are minimized (only from the milk), which limits the amount of insulin released. The fat will slow the digestion of the protein, and the carbs from the milk.
Contraindications: If you're starting to look like the Penguin from this suggestion, try Meal 3.
3 Fat Loss Meals
- 1-2 scoops of combined casein/whey protein (20-40g)
- 250-400mL water
Rationale: No carbs, no fat, just protein. What's to explain?
Contraindications: If you have the metabolism of a 90-year-old woman and somehow manage to put on fat from this meal, you are probably eating too many calories in general. Either that, or you're actually dead.
- Remember that the key to consuming these meals is to drink, not eat if possible, and get back to sleep as fast as possible. (Note: It's not the end of the world if you have to go to the fridge in order to eat some solid food.) This doesn't mean you should try to hurry the meal, or hurry to get back to bed, since this rushing will just get you worked up and make it hard to fall back asleep.
- Minimize the use of any artificial light and any unnecessary trips out of bed.
- Meal prep should already be done so you don't have to even think about what you're doing.
- If you have problems waking up at night, you could either set an alarm (great for timing, but bad for scaring the hell out of you and preventing you from falling back asleep) or try the old Indian trick of drinking extra liquids within the hour before going to bed. This extra fluid intake will ensure that you wake up to go to the bathroom, and then you can eat/drink at the same time...well, maybe wait until you're done urinating before eating.
- Store the drinks in some sort of thermal container with ice and a lid on top. That way, you can give your drink a few shakes when you wake up to make sure none of the proteins have coagulated.
Although waking up to eat may seem like a pain in the ass, you should now see the potential benefits. Keep in mind that after eating at "the same bat-time" for a while, you won't even know that you're waking up to do it! If you're still too lazy to try it, please feel free to follow the lead of Batman's bitch, Robin. Of course you may already be making gains despite the usual catabolic starvation period, but imagine how great the gains will be when this catabolic fast is removed, and we add a little protein synthesis to it!
Happy nocturnal eating!
- Baillie AG et al. Responses of protein synthesis in different skeletal muscles to fasting and insulin in rats. Am J Physiol. 1991 Jun;260(6):E891-6.
- Biolo G et al. An abundant supply of amino acids enhances the metabolic effect of exercise on muscle protein. Am J Physiol. 1997 Jul;273(1):E122-9.
- Kern W et al. Hormonal secretion during nighttime sleep indicating stress of daytime exercise. J Appl Physiol. 1995 Nov;79(5):1461-8.
- Louard RJ et al. Overnight branched-chain amino acid infusion causes sustained suppression of muscle proteolysis. Metabolism. 1995 Apr;44(4):424-9.
- McMurray RG et al. Nocturnal hormonal responses to resistance exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1995;72(1-2):121-6.
- Meek SE et al. Differential regulation of amino acid exchange and protein dynamics across splanchnic and skeletal muscle beds by insulin in healthy human subjects. Diabetes. 1998 Dec;47(12):1824-35.
- Palou A et al. Metabolic effects of short term food deprivation in the rat. Horm Metab Res. 1981 Jun;13(6):326-30.
- Phillips SM et al. Mixed muscle protein synthesis and breakdown after resistance exercise in humans. Am J Physiol. 1997 Jul;273(1):E99-107.
- Schuenke MD et al. Effect of an acute period of resistance exercise on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption: implications for body mass management. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2002 Mar;86(5):411-7.
- Van Cauter E et al. Modulation of glucose regulation and insulin secretion by circadian rhythmicity and sleep. J Clin Invest. 1991 Sep;88(3):934-42.
- Yaman MA et al. Various macronutrient intakes additively stimulate protein synthesis in liver and muscle of food-deprived chicks. J Nutr. 2000 Jan;130(1):70-6.
- Zillikens MC et al. Nocturnal oral glucose supplementation. The effects on protein metabolism in cirrhotic patients and in healthy controls. J Hepatol. 1993 Mar;17(3):377-83.