Human beings have an intrinsic and powerful connection to sunlight that evolved over thousands of years. Before the advent of electricity we were bound by the constraints of daylight, and our sleep cycles followed suit. But today, electricity and technological stimulation allow our minds and bodies to be active after sundown, which can wreak havoc on our health. Many hormonal processes in our body are literally hardwired to be orchestrated by sunlight and the absence of sunlight. It is no surprise that adhering to a normal sleep pattern is therefore highly important to maintaining optimal health.
The "Body Clock"
Many people report that they fall asleep easily, but wake at the same time in the middle of the night. This can be incredibly frustrating, especially if you can't fall back asleep and wake up tired the next day. The concept of an “Organ Clock" in Chinese medicine is a useful tool in understanding why this occurs. In Chinese medicine, energy or qi, moves through the body’s meridians and organs in a 24 hour cycle. Every two hours the qi (or energy) is strongest within a particular organ and its functions within the body. And that's not all - the body, mind and emotions are inseparable in Chinese medicine - meaning that if you have disharmony in your physical body, it is tied to your emotional state. So if you wake up at 3 AM, when Liver energy peaks, you may be suffering from Liver Qi stagnation, which could be related to an unhealthy diet, excess alcohol consumption, unresolved anger or high levels of stress. If you consistently wake at 4 AM - it could be due to an imbalance in your Lungs, which is related to grief and sadness, fatigue, or reduced immune function.
The most important time to sleep!
Many of us are habitual night owls and think nothing of it, especially if we get a decent amount of sleep each night. But, according to Chinese medicine, it’s not only how much sleep you get that matters, but also when you get it. A bedtime of 10:30pm (at the latest) is advised so that you are asleep by 11pm when the Liver and Gallbladder start to regulate qi, process emotions, balance hormones and detoxify the body. According to Chinese medicine, the window from 11 PM - 3 AM, which correlates to the Liver and Gallbladder, is most important in terms of maintaining health, especially as we age. Many of us have heard the old adage: “Every hour of sleep before midnight is worth two after midnight.” This idea is backed by modern sleep science - we experience the deepest part of sleep during the first third of the night. This deep sleep, or Slow Wave Sleep (SWS), is the most restorative part of our sleep. During these hours the stress hormone cortisol is reduced and parasympathetic nervous system activity increases, which allows us to fully rest and move away from the fight or flight responses that dominate during waking hours. SWS is associated with memory and learning. A lack of this type of sleep can lead to reduced daytime functioning and alertness as well as waking feeling unrefreshed. Further, human growth hormone, which is essential to repairing our bodies from daily injury and maintaining health, is released from 9pm-7am, making each hour of sleep during this time critical.
Check out the guide below to find some insight into why you might be waking up at a certain hour. Acupuncture is a great way to balance the qi within your body to improve sleep and energy and balance emotions. Yoga, meditation, physical activity, a healthy diet and adhering to a consistent bed time will also greatly impact your sleep.
9 PM - 11 PM // Triple Burner (related to the Heart and Pericardium)
Emotion: Joy or lack of joy, depression, hopelessness.
Functions: The Triple Burner is not a distinct organ but is related to our endocrine and lymphatic systems. It controls metabolism within the body.
Symptoms of imbalance: Mania, feelings of guilt, depression, adrenal fatigue, hormone imbalance, sluggish metabolism, frequent headaches, fatigue, earaches, swollen lymph nodes, fibromyalgia, thyroid disorder, alternating chills and fever.
Tips: Consider going to bed earlier, establish a calming nighttime routine, avoid artificial light after 9pm.
11 PM - 1 AM // Gall Bladder (strongly tied to the Liver)
Functions: The Gallbladder stores and excretes bile to facilitate proper digestion. It also rules the decision making process, controls the sinews and tendons and governs dreams.
Symptoms of imbalance: Indecision, frequent sighing, rash decisions, poor judgement, difficulty making decisions, shyness, timidity, high cholesterol, resentment, dream-disturbed sleep, weak tendons, tendonitis.
Tips: Avoid alcohol, transfats and spicy foods. Eat a small dinner well before bedtime and avoid snacking before bed.
1 AM - 3 AM // Liver
Functions: The Liver is responsible for detoxifying our bodies and processing emotions each night. The Liver stores the blood and governs the qi of the body. It is associated with the tendons, nails and eyes. Think back to a night when you had too much to drink or a period of intense frustration at work. Did you wake up around between 1-3am unable to fall back asleep? From a Chinese medicine perspective your liver was overloaded with and struggled to do its work.
Symptoms of imbalance: Explosive outbursts of anger, bottled up emotions, resentment, irritability, moodiness, frustration, high blood pressure, chest distention, PMS, bitter taste in mouth, digestive upset, dizziness, migraine headache, breast tenderness, blurred vision, eye floaters, red face, tendonitis, frequent sighing.
Tips: Make sure to drink alcohol in moderation and eat your last meal a few hours before bed. Consider a whole foods cleanse. Cut out coffee for a week and replace it with green tea. Find ways to deal with your anger and frustrations in a healthy way. Get regular exercise.
3 AM - 5 AM // Lung
Functions: The Lungs govern the respiratory and immune system, regulate the sweat glands, and moisten the skin.
Symptoms of imbalance: Feelings of sadness or grief that have not been dealt with, shortness of breath, sweating easily, weak voice, shallow breathing, fatigue, cough, frequent cold/flu, fever with chills, sore throat, runny nose, headache, allergies, asthma, chest pain, pale complexion, dry skin, depression, crying.
Tips: Try breathing exercises, meditation or yoga to improve your lung capacity. Consider getting counseling or talking to a friend about feelings of sadness or grief. Write in your journal about your emotions before bed each night.