“Why this time?”
If your nocturnal alarm clock wakes you at the same time every night, the frustration is real. If you thought there’s a rhyme or reason behind it, you would be correct. It’s far from random and The Chinese Medicine Body Clock can explain why.
WHAT’S THE BODY CLOCK?
In Chinese Medicine our circadian rhythms are divided into 2-hour intervals across the 24-hour day. During each time frame, the concentration of qi (energy) and blood peak in a specific internal organ, giving it a chance to reset and regulate. This is important for sleep because:
Waking like clockwork means the organ governed by that time is imbalanced.
In other words, your body is basically working on overdrive to bring that organ back to a state of harmony. Likewise, chronically skimping on sleep from staying up too late can also disrupt that organ by not allowing it to process during its restorative time-frame. This can lead to a vicious cycle fairly quickly. So how do you break it? By listening to your body, to start.
When you are desperate to sleep, it’s common to try anything that seems like a quick fix or magic bullet. For many people I work with (before they tried Acupuncture) this meant taking heavy-duty medications or melatonin which lead to negative side effects, worsening sleep, or dependency in some cases (more on that later). But what if instead of fighting or suppressing your symptoms, you thought of them more like informative clues?
After all, your symptoms are how your body speaks to you when something isn’t right.
By paying attention to when they show up and reflecting on their root causes, you can begin to decipher what they mean.
This is why the Chinese Medicine Body Clock can be so useful: it highlights what organ systems are struggling and why.
Find the hours you are waking up to learn what your body might be trying to tell you…
SO, WHY DO I WAKE UP AT THE SAME TIME EVERY NIGHT?
7PM - 9PM | PERICARDIUM
The Pericardium is the muscle that surrounds your heart. In TCM it is known as the “great wrapper.” It provides insulation for the heart, regulates circulation in the major vessels going to and from it, while also protecting the it from infection. Energetically the Pericardium is our heart’s protector. Like a body guard, it reads the room and decides what and who is safe be around. It guards the heart from everyday emotional fluctuations and shocking stimuli, making it the first to absorb emotional pain and stress. The Pericardium rules self-expression, boundaries, and vulnerability.
Balanced: Joy, Confidence, Openness, Self Acceptance
Imbalanced: Mania, Despair, Fear of Expression & Intimacy
Nervous laughter, Hypervigilance, Phobias, Nausea, Vomiting, Relationship Fears, Hopelessness, Vertigo.
This is a good time to start winding down for the night, ideal for reconnecting to loved ones and yourself. Eat a light dinner or snack; Enjoy meaningful conversation. Establish some nurturing rituals at this time: a skincare routine, gratitude journaling, mindful introspection, etc.
What is your heart’s desire? What would bring you more joy in life? How can you create consistent space in your life to work towards or experience it? How can you safely express your fears so that they no longer have a hold on you?
9PM - 11PM | TRIPLE BURNER
The Triple Burner (also called Triple Energizer) is less of a single organ but a network that governs our body’s fluid metabolism. Related to our lymphatic and endocrine systems, the Triple Burner ensures free flow and communication between all of our organ systems in the thorax, abdomen, and pelvis (Upper, Middle, and Lower Burners, respectively). From a biomedical view, its physical form is our connective tissue (collagen and fascia) which is liquid-crystalline and semi-conductive in nature, allowing signals to be exchanged throughout the body. Energetically, the Triple Burner represents self-regulation, coordination, and harmony. It highlights your authentic self (identity) versus what you take-on as your sense of self from the world. It reflects your ability to take in (Upper), transform (Middle), and eliminate (Lower) what is yours vs. what is not.
Balanced: Discernment, Friendliness, Cooperative
Imbalanced: Suspicion, Guilt, Stubbornness, Confusion, Dogmatic
Swollen lymph nodes, Edema, Sluggish Metabolism, Adrenal Fatigue, Burnout, Autoimmune-related Inflammation, Fibromyalgia, Thyroid disorders, Head + Earaches, Tinnitus (ear ringing), Nerve Pain, Alternating Chills + Fever
Like the Pericardium (which is closely related to the Triple Burner) feeling safe is needed to fall asleep here. This is a window of time where your mind can be racing making it hard to doze off—or if you fall asleep, you wake up shortly after feeling anxious. These scenarios can mean your adrenals are taxed keeping your nervous system stuck in a sympathetic (fight-or-flight) mode. You might be internalizing stress and other people’s energy from that day.
If this sounds like you, try getting to bed earlier and using the tips from the Pericardium time (above) to self-soothe and calm your nervous system. This is definitely the time to avoid artificial light and media (including —or especially— the news and social media where there is a tendency to energetically internalize and ruminate on others people’s lives + global issues). If you are noise sensitive, try earplugs. If you are more anxious, a weighted blanket can help create a sense of comfort and safety to help you sleep more soundly.
Are you internalizing other people’s perceptions, expectations, and emotions? Can you allow yourself to feel safe and rest so you can have the energy needed for tomorrow?
11PM - 1 AM | GALLBLADDER
The Gallbladder excretes bile to assist in digestion. In Chinese Medicine, it governs the sinews (muscles, tendons, ligaments) and their strength. Energetically, the Gallbladder is in charge of judgement and decision-making. It provides the courage and initiative to carry out tasks so our lives can run smoothly. It also rules dreams. This is why being sound asleep during this time is essential for healthy cognitive functioning and cellular repair.
Balanced: Optimism, Initiative, Courage, Assertive, Committed
Imbalanced: Cynicism, Bitterness, Timidity, Indecisive, Procrastination
Tendonitis, High Cholesterol, Temporal Headaches, Gallstones, Indigestion (especially after rich, fatty-melas), Gas, Bloating, Cravings for greasy foods, Cholecystitis, Rib-side pain, Indecision, Poor Judgement, Anxiety, Impulsiveness, Shyness, Dream-Disturbed sleep, Brain Fog, Dizziness
If you are waking up here, it can mean you are struggling with decisions in your daily life. You might be harboring harsh judgements about others (like the expression “I cannot believe the gall of that person”). Physically, your Gallbladder might be overworked especially if you ate a large meal right before bed. Having a diet high in processed or fried foods can also contribute to waking at this time.
Try eating a smaller portioned dinner a few hours before bed so your Gallbladder is not trying to digest food during this time. Consider getting healthier oils your diet from avocados, coconut, olives, nuts, fish, quality meat, etc. Increase intake of bitter leafy vegetables (dandelion greens, broccoli rabe, kale, escarole, endive) and sour flavors like unfiltered apple-cider vinegar and lemon juice. Avoid trans-fats; limit fried + processed foods.
Is there a decision you are struggling with? Are you overburdened by having too many responsibilities in your waking hours? If so, how (and where) can you minimize or delegate decisions to ease your mind? What judgments can you let go of? Where can you have more compassion?
1AM - 3AM | LIVER
The Liver is responsible for filtering blood and processing chemicals ingested from our food, environment, drugs, household cleaners, toiletries, cosmetics, etc. The Liver also regulates the balance of our sex, thyroid, and adrenal hormones. In Chinese Medicine, we refer to these roles more holistically in saying the Liver ensures the smooth circulation of qi and blood. It manifests in the eyes, hair, and nails. Energetically, the Liver is our body’s Commander (I endearingly compare it to the organ with a Type-A personality). It thrives on planning, organization, and structure to help us get things done from everyday demands to materializing our dreams. It is negatively affected by everyday stress. Because of the Liver’s role in “clearing,” when overworked it becomes stagnant leading to health issues characterized by poor processing and circulation.
Balanced: Inspiration, Clear Vision, Faith, Diligence
Imbalanced: Anger, Frustration, Irritability, Resentment, Feeling Stuck
Moodiness, Depression, Emotional Outbursts, PMS, Endometriosis, High Blood Pressure, Migraines, Breast Tenderness, Frequent Sighing, Feeling of Lump in the Throat, Red Eyes + Face, Jaundice, Eye Floaters, Poor or Blurry Vision, Brittle Nails, Thinning Hair, Painful Periods, Ribside-pain, Shingles, Acne, Cold Hands + Feet, Resentful, Road Rage, Alcoholism.
Waking up at this time means your Liver is congested—it’s unable to cleanse your body fully of everything you take in. This can be from drinking too much alcohol (especially before bed). Side note: a lot of people think alcohol helps them fall asleep, but it will still wake you up from 1-3am because your Liver is working on overdrive to metabolize it. Same thing when you take too many medications or OTC painkillers (hence their warning labels for Liver toxicity). You can also be absorbing too many toxins from your environment (think air + water quality), household products (cleaners), and cosmetics which lack robust FDA regulation, enabling companies to use heavy metals, chemicals, and hormone-disrupting plastics that can lead to more Liver congestion.
Moderate alcohol consumption. Exercise regularly (lack of movement physically goes hand in hand with emotional stagnation). Take short breaks from desk work. Use blue-light blocking glasses to ease eye strain. Practice deep breathing during difficult moments. Find productive ways to express emotions instead of bottling them inside. Download the app Think Dirty to find cleaner home and personal products—you can look up the rating and ingredients on ones you already use plus scan store items before bringing them home (not affiliated, just highly recommend it).
What is creating congestion in your life? Do you regularly drink alcohol during the week or before bed? Would you be willing to investigate and switch to cleaner household and personal items that safer for your health? Are you harboring frustrations and resentment? If so, how can you address them so they no longer keep you stuck?
3AM - 5AM | LUNGS
The Lungs regulate breathing, distribute oxygen to the blood, and govern our immune system by circulating the body’s Defensive Qi. In Chinese Medicine, the Lungs maintain boundaries between our internal and external environment by controlling the skin and sweat glands’ ability to detox. The Lungs also govern our voice and sense of smell. Energetically, they relate to communication, receiving, releasing, and protection.
Balanced: Acceptance, Surrender, Clarity
Imbalanced: Grief, Sadness, Nostalgia
Prolonged Sadness and Grief, Asthma, Shortness of breath, Excessive Sweating (or lack of), Allergies, Low voice, Weak Immune System (gets sick easily), Crying, Chest Pain, Skin Conditions (dryness, acne, eczema), occipital headache, tiredness, smoking dependency.
Waking up here can happen if you struggle with allergies or are in the midst of a respiratory infection. There can also be a difficult transition, long-repressed sadness, and grief that has not been fully processed.
If you intentionally wake up at these hours to start your day, its a perfect time to practice some deep breathing or meditation. If not, consider adopting some light physical activity during the day to improve your lung capacity: walking, yoga, meditation. If you are having difficulty working through grief and loss, consider if talking to a counselor would be helpful for you.
Are you fighting a cold or coming down with one? Are you struggling with loss or sadness? How can you give yourself the time and space to process it?
5AM - 7AM | LARGE INTESTINE
The Large Intestine is responsible for elimination. It works with the Lungs to cleanse the body of food waste, toxins, excess hormones, and even our emotions. It energetically represents the ability to “let go” and release the need to control. A lot of people normally wake up between these hours, but if that is abnormal for your sleep patterns, consider the Large Intestine’s meaning which might lend some insight.
Balanced: Releasing, Ability to Express Emotions (including crying), Flexibility Imbalanced: Rigidity, Stubbornness, Controlling, Inability to Let Go
Constipation, IBS, Diarrhea, Colitis, Hemorrhoids, Diverticulitis, Bloating, Food Allergies, Chronic Fatigue
Because the Large Intestine is closely related to the Lungs in Chinese Medicine, waking at this time can also mean there are buried feelings of grief or sadness, or also a need for control. Look to your diet and hydration if there are bowel irregularities during these hours or in general.
Drink more water (general recommendation is half of you body weight in ounces a day), regular exercise, get natural fiber from vegetables and dark leafy greens, avoid many cold-raw foods and cold drinks which can constrict intestines + slow gastric motility, eat more warm + cooked foods
What are you holding onto? Are you allowing yourself to let go and make room for the new in your life? What are your expectations of others? Can you allow people to be themselves or a situation to unfold without trying to control an outcome?
CAN ACUPUNCTURE HELP WITH SLEEP PROBLEMS?
Acupuncture effectively and holistically treats insomnia by addressing the stubborn symptoms keeping you up at night while treating the underlying reasons they are showing up in the first place—both mind and body.
From a biomedical perspective, Acupuncture boosts melatonin production without the dependency or side effects of other pharmaceutical options. Research has demonstrated that “compared to no treatment, sham acupuncture, or medications, acupuncture was significantly better on improving parameters in sleep quality and duration, and the combination of acupuncture and other interventions (pharmaceuticals) appears more effective than those interventions alone.” A main mechanism of Acupuncture is its ability to shift your mind out of overdrive. Put more scientifically, Acupuncture down-regulates the nervous system from a heightened sympathetic state (fight-or-flight) to a parasympathetic state that allows you to rest-and-digest. It improves your Heart Rate Variability (HRV) which measures your nervous system’s ability to switch between these two modes at appropriate times. The trouble with insomnia is that it oftentimes leads to—and is caused by—not being able to switch ‘survival’ mode off. This not only has negative effects on HRV, but overall health with evidence linking insomnia to depression and diminished recovery (injuries + illness) to cardiovascular disease and dementia.
It’s no surprise that your stress levels and emotional state directly affect your sleep. For centuries, Chinese Medicine has understood how emotions can manifest physically as symptoms and vice versa, how our physical well-being can determine our psychology. Whether stress, stuck emotions, unresolved trauma, difficult transitions, or something else is behind your insomnia, these are connections I see everyday and I am here to help you through it.