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  • Ellen Brown L.Ac. DACM

Why do I always wake-up at 2:00am? Understanding the Chinese body clock

Updated: Aug 21, 2020

Ancient Chinese sages understood that there is a natural cycle of energy that circulates within the body over a 24-hour period. This body clock reflects the nature of the energy that is available to us any given time. Mirroring the 12 primary meridians of energy that flow through the body (and paired with their respective organ system), each "rules" for a two hour period during the 24-hour cycle. The clock shows us which meridian-organ system is activated and dominant at a specific time. Knowing these cycles can help us make better decisions of when to sleep, eat and exercise, for instance. It also tells us when there is an imbalance of energy within one (or more) of the systems if we have a chronic issue at a certain time of day.

Below is a short explanation of how to think about these 2-hour cycles and what types of activities are best to perform during each window of peak energy.

From 5:00 – 7:00 am / Large Intestine

When we first awaken, there is more energy in the large intestine than any other time of the day, allowing it to maximally do the work it needs to keep us healthy. Drinking a warm glass of water with lemon during these early morning hours can help stimulate the bowels to rid the body of toxins consolidated overnight and to make room for the new day’s nutritional intake.

From 7:00 – 9:00 am / Stomach

Digestive fires are at their highest during this time, as energy flows from the large intestine into the stomach, stimulating our hunger. Starting the day with a healthy breakfast is essential. Because stomach energy is at its peak during this time, we should never skip “the most important meal of the day” to ensure that we optimize digestion and assimilation.

From 9:00 – 11:00am / Spleen (Pancreas)

The stomach passes its energy onto the spleen/pancreas, just as it passes its contents onto this organ as well. Enzymes from the pancreas continue the digestive process and, importantly, make carbohydrate energy available as the day proceeds. This is also the time of day when we are naturally at our most productive, so its important to keep our intentions clear and positive to avoid getting stuck in negative patterns as we move through our day. In Chinese Medicine, the spleen is related to the emotion of worry – or rumination (over-thinking) – a damaging pattern that can often build as the workday progresses if spleen energy is deficient.

From 11:00 – 1:00am / Heart

The heart enters its dominant energy phase as the day moves from morning into afternoon, just as nutrients enter the bloodstream. Because the heart is ruled by the element of fire, mid-day is often a good time to take action and get things done. This is also the time, if your heart energy is below peak, that you might experience palpitations from pushing yourself beyond your limits.

From 1:00 – 3:00 pm / Small Intestine

The energy of the small intestine now reaches its peak so that foods which require longer digestion times (such as proteins) may complete their digestion and assimilation. Importantly, the day’s largest meals should be eaten before 3:00pm. Having accomplished the most productive part of your day, now is a good time to focus on creative or relaxing activities. As our bodies begin slowing down, many of us often feel sleepy as the clock reaches 3:00pm. Indeed, the Spanish tradition of siesta makes good Chinese sense.

Between 3:00 – 5:00pm / Bladder

Metabolic wastes from the morning’s meal are cleared during the hours when bladder energy rules, eventually making room for the kidney’s filtration function. As we approach 3:00pm, the brain demands 80% of the glucose/sugar in the bloodstream. While this should be the peak time of day for mental clarity and function, it is often when people feel a slump in their energy and have difficulty focusing. Many people crave sugar and give into a candy/caffeine “boost” during this time because they failed to eat wisely earlier (and create stable blood sugar levels to sustain them later in the day). This is the time of day when many of us either catch our second wind, or grow more quiet and reflective.

From 5:00 – 7:00 pm / Kidney

As kidney energy peaks, blood is filtered to maintain proper chemical balance based on the day’s nutritional intake. The early evening is a time for conserving energy and beginning to get the last of your tasks wrapped up as the day ends. An imbalance or disharmony in kidney energy can often lead to a sense of fearfulness, which many of us experience as the day darkens. Keeping a journal where you write down your fears and examine them (during the light of day when fear is not a dominant emotion) can help bring about a deeper understanding of these emotions and help you prepare to relax for the evening.

From 7:00 – 9:00 pm / Pericardium

Early evening is when we honor the divine protector of the heart, the pericardium. It is a time to eat (a small) evening meal, enjoy others’ company and perhaps open ourselves up to receptivity with the practice meditation and gratitude. This is the time when we start to turn inward and rest in our essence, no longer concerned with the day’s progress or success.

From 9:00 – 11:00 pm San Jiao (Triple Heater)

As we move further into night, our active phase is winding down and we hear the call of our bed. This time is ruled by the Triple “Jiao” – a uniquely Chinese concept that approximates the three main areas of the body: Thorax, Abdomen and Pelvis. The Thorax controls intake, the Abdomen rules transformation, and the Pelvis dominates elimination. This is a potent time for listening to our inner wisdom, transforming emotional blockages, and eliminating that which we do not need in our lives.

From 11:00 – 1:00 am / Gall Bladder

Initial cleansing of all tissues occurs during the peak hours of the gall bladder, along with cholesterol processing. Gall Bladder time is often a time of dreams bubbling up to the surface – keeping a journal close to your bedside can help you capture the courageous and decisive “whispers” of the gall bladder.

From 1:00 – 3:00 am / Liver

Liver energy dominates during the earliest hours of the morning. This represents a peak time of cleansing the blood and processing wastes. It is also the time when we process – and ideally cleanse – our fiercest feelings of anger, frustration and irritation, all emotions of the liver. If you commonly wake during this 2-hour window, it may mean you are avoiding a suppressed anger / frustration that needs to be addressed.

From 3:00 – 5:00 am / Lung

Finally, we reach the peak time for the lungs, when our mind is at its sharpest and most productive (ironically, since we are often asleep). Working during these early morning “witching hours” when the rest of the world is asleep can be incredibly productive. Many find they experience greater clarity and creativity during these hours, or a mental “sharpness” that allows them to handle difficult projects that require maximum concentration. Because the lung is associated with the emotion of grief, if you wake up consistently during this time it may indicate a profound sadness that must be dealt with.

The Chinese meridian clock can be a very insightful tool for diagnosing energy imbalances or weaknesses in your physical and emotional life. Understanding that every organ has a repair/maintenance schedule to keep on a daily basis offer you the opportunity to learn how to treat yourself and improve your health. You can become familiar with your own body’s cycles by noticing changes in the way you feel and your energy levels at different times of the day and evening. This allows you to identify which organ system or emotion needs strengthening or resolving. Do you get tired at a particular time of day? Are you prone to headaches at certain times? When are you most irritable? Do you always seem to wake up at a certain time in the middle of the night? There are ancient Chinese acupuncture points (called “Horary” points) that can be used to help reset the cycle of energy throughout the body. Your acupuncturist can help optimize the cycles of your body clock and correct imbalances in their energy flow.

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