TCM Body Clock: Why Do We Wake Up or Feel Ill at a Certain Time of Day?
- Published on: 30 October, 2014
- Last update: 05 May, 2021
*clock in the image for this post was sources from comfytummy.com
Western Medicine has made some incredible advances, but I often find myself in awe of the wisdom imparted by ancient cultures. Long ago, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) discovered a “body clock” that can help us understand the way energy moves through our bodies to restore and activate different organ functions.
TCM Body Clock Explained
Chinese Medicine’s 24 hour body clock is divided into 12 separate two-hour intervals. During each interval, our Qi (vital life force, sometimes called “prana”) moves through the body, landing in a specific organ meridian. During sleep, Qi is drawn inward to restore the body. This phase is completed between 1 and 3 A.M., when the liver cleanses the blood and performs a myriad of functions that prepare the body for the Qi to move outward again.
Exactly 12 hours after “liver time” ends (which would be from 3 A.M. to 3 P.M.), energy cycles of the organs associated with activity rather than rest and repair are carried out, such as digestion and elimination. These organs include the lungs, large intestine, stomach, spleen/pancreas, heart and small intestine.
After 3 P.M., the flow of energy again begins moving inward to support internal organs associated with repairing the system. The purpose of this is to circulate fluids and heat, as well as to filter and cleanse. This time affects the pericardium, triple burner (coordinates water functions and temperature), bladder, kidneys, circulation/sex and the liver.
When one organ is at its peak energy, the organ at the opposite side of the clock, 12 hours away, is at its lowest function. For example, between 1-3 A.M., the liver reaches its peak, doing its work to cleanse the blood. At the same time, the small intestine (the organ responsible for the absorption and assimilation of nutrients) is at its lowest point of activity – a good reason not to stay up and eat in the middle of the night! 😉
What does this mean in the 21st century? First of all, as I mentioned it gives us a great explanation as to why you are taxing the system when it has to deal with late night meals and snacking. When we eat late at night, food is not well absorbed by the small intestine (since it is resting) and the liver is distracted from the opportunity to do its job of housekeeping. Furthermore, it allows us to use specific times of the day to our advantage, such as meditating between 5 and 7 P.M. when the kidneys are ready to rest and restore your energy.
Why do we abruptly wake or feel ill at certain times of the day?
The other morning I woke up at 5:26 A.M. from a nightmare about my teeth crumbling out of my mouth! Yes, I know that’s incredibly strange – a fun fact about me is that I have insane dreams that involve everything from animals to aliens. Once I had a dream that I was a horse. Seriously! I was walking down the avenue by my house, just trotting on by, totally fine with the fact that I had four legs. Another time I had a dream that a teacher microwaved my tongue. I’ve never been normal, per say, so I suppose it comes with the territory?!
Anyway — the night I had the teeth dream I was a) dehydrated (drinking water is SO important) and b) constipated. TMI, but it happens to the best of us. I’m pretty sure (b) was caused by (a) because warm water with ginger and lemon upon waking did the trick. Regardless, both dehydration and constipation deal with the large intestine, which correctly lines up with the hours of 5-7 A.M. How fabulous is the human body? It is always leaving us clues in the forms of symptoms. Our symptoms are our friends; they are the language in which our body speaks. That’s why I love Chinese medicine… there are always charts and guides that allow you to translate these clues into the underlying issue.
As we discussed above, each “meridian” or organ system has a two hour period where they are the main player. The meridians, however, are not just related to organs. They are linked to thoughts and emotions, color, sound, seasons and other spiritual aspects as well. When the energy of a meridian is not flowing well due to a block (like stress or toxicity), you’ll find that you’ll experience a sign or symptom from the meridian involved (just like my nightmare/abrupt waking).
If you also find you are waking up at the same time each night, or falling into a slump around 3 P.M., you can look at the meridian at work and what may be happening with you.
Meaning & Function of Each Organ System
Here is a detailed list of the function of each meridian/organ system as well as the emotions that go with it. This is very important. Sometimes if we wake up at 3 A.M., it’s simply because we have a purely physical issue, i.e. the liver is not processing waste correctly or is hindered by gallstones. However, sometimes, the physical symptoms are manifesting because of an underlying emotion. The liver is heavily associated with anger, frustration, and rage; so if you’re waking up at 3 it might be because you’re repressing emotions that you must work through.
(List of meridian functions below from mcuniverse.com):
3am – 5am : Lung Time
- Early stirring gentle breathing
Mucus and waste from your lungs becomes loosened between 3 to 5 am, and when you awaken, this can be why you experience mucus buildup. Your lungs are trying to expel the loosened waste. If you are coughing in the morning, this indicates that your diet and lifestyle needs tweaking in order to reduce stagnation and mucus congestion. Feeling ill at this time can also be an indication of deep grief that must be dealt with.
5am – 7am : Large Intestine Time
- Rising and defecating
To get the day off to a good start, give yourself enough time early in the morning to honor the normal elimination function of the large intestine. The morning is the most important time to drink plenty of water and the worst time to have caffeine. Caffeine is a diuretic and takes water away from your colon to the kidneys and bladder for evacuation, but your body need water in the morning to keep up its repair and maintenance of the large intestine and colon. If you are feeling bad at this time, drink lots of water. Drinking plenty of water at this time keeps you from getting constipated, gaining weight, looking and feeling older and improves your overall health. From an emotional perspective, you may need to let go of guilt.
7am – 9am : Stomach Time
- Healthy eating
Now the flow of energy moves to the stomach stimulating hunger. You are encouraged to eat a hearty, healthy breakfast in order to fuel your day and establish an eating routine that your digestive system can sync up to. Eating your larger meals of the day in the morning and afternoon delivers nourishment to the small intestine when it is strongest, which aids absorption and assimilation. Issues during this time may mean that your stomach is too “cold” – think low digestive fire (especially since we as a Western society love salads, ice water, and smoothies!) Be sure to drink ginger tea to nourish the stomach.
9am – 11am : Pancreas/Spleen Time
- Thinking and working
- Low Self-esteem
TCM considers the “Spleen” the most important digestive organ, so even a late breakfast will be digested easily. (Note that this is NOT the classic Western view of the actual physical organ we refer to as the spleen. TCM uses the word “Spleen” to describe the process of digestion itself, including blood sugar management and the release of digestive enzymes from the pancreas). On the other hand, this is also the time when allergies can show up the strongest because the “Spleen” is busy working with the Liver and your immune system. In western terms, a healthy spleen produces antibodies when there is an infection and constantly watches the blood for invaders. Illness during this time can mean your “Spleen” is deficient, or you are worrying/having self esteem issues. The spleen is also aided by ginger tea, the all encompassing stomach cure! 😉
11am – 1pm : Heart Time
- Meeting talking and eating
- Frightfully Sad
Don’t overtax your heart at this time. You may notice a rapid heartbeat, increased stress (especially if you’re working on difficult tasks at this time), double beats and/or skipping beats. Research shows that there is an increased occurrence heart attacks occur during this time frame, so take it s l o w. Being full of joy, enthusiastic and restful makes the heart stronger, whereas the opposite emotions of saddness and gloom weaken the heart. Doing anything heat-inducing during this time is not good for optimal heart health as the heart has an aversion to heat according to the TCM.
1pm – 3pm : Small Intestine Time
- Sorting and organizing
- Vulnerable / Gullible
- Feelings of Abandonment
Have you noticed that between 1 to 3 pm you are more apt to have indigestion, pain and bloating? This shows a problem with your small intestine. Are you feeling insecurity, self doubt, or even abandoned? Do you have leaky gut? Bone broth soup can work wonders for gut issues and malabsorption.
3pm – 5pm : Bladder Time
- Storing and reserving
- associated with the Skin
At this time you may notice that you are tired and want a nap. Salty foods strengthen the Bladder, so drinking a cup of savory miso soup or nutrient-rich broth would be beneficial.
5pm – 7pm : Kidney Time
- Driving and consolidating
The feeling of being tired and wanting a nap could continue into this time frame. On the other hand, when the Kidneys are healthy and working properly, you will feel energetic at this time and not tired. The kidneys are aligned with the adrenals, the glands that produce cortisol to help us spring out of bed in the morning. Early morning, from 5-7 am, is when kidney energy is weakest—a reason that people with depleted kidney energy often have trouble waking up to a new day.
7pm – 9pm : Pericardium, Circulation Sex Time
- Associated with the brain, including the pituitary and hypothalamus and the reproductive organs
- Socializing and flirting
- Hurt/Extreme Joy
- Inability to Express Emotions
Between 7 to 9 pm, do you have intense cravings for sweets or processed carbohydrates that turn to sugar immediately in the system? The reason is because the Kidneys regulate the Pancreas, and if you do consume sweets during that period, you may notice lower back pain, which is a kidney symptom. Poor circulation may also be a sign of ‘kidney yang deficiency,’ so a cup of hawthorn berry or licorice root tea as “dessert” during this window would be wonderful.
9pm – 11pm : Triple Warmer Time
- Associated with the Thyroid and Adrenals
- Controls Metabolism
- Energy Transfer and Regulates Temperature
- Relaxing and Chilling
- Confusion, Paranoia
The Triple Warmer governs Blood Vessels and Arteries. From 9 to 11 pm the blood vessels go into repair mode. If you get headaches, feel abnormally tired or weak, this means that the blood vessels are in heavy repair.
11pm – 1am : Gall Bladder Time
- Sleeping and regenerating
(Related to liver, see below)
1am – 3 am: Liver Time
- Deep resting and dreaming
The Liver and Gallbladder spring into action between 11 pm to 3 am. Do you ever have nights when you can’t sleep at this time? This means that waste is not being processed by your liver and it acts as an irritant to your body causing insomnia and frayed nerves. Your brain just won’t stop. You may need to deal with unresolved anger and grudges towards others.
Understanding that every organ has a repair/maintenance schedule to keep on a daily basis offers you the opportunity to learn how to treat yourself for improved health and well-being. It also allows you to identify exactly which organ system or emotion needs strengthening/resolving. Always use your symptoms and body cues as a guide, and if you make a connection above, such as that you get sleepy between 5-7pm, don’t hesitate to research what you can do to strengthen that meridian (which would be the Kidneys). A great solution to deficient kidneys is having a sweet potato for breakfast!
Make sure to look at the emotional aspect too. If you’re sleepy during kidney time, do you have any fears holding you back from reaching your true potential? Are you afraid of rejection? Failure? Addressing this emotion will strengthen the organ and improve your physical health forever.
With the transferable knowledge of TCM, you can use the clock for any time of day. I look forward to writing many more pieces about this amazing, ancient system of medicine!