Ever wonder why you’re waking up at 2 am?
For many, it’s like clockwork. You go out to dinner and have a couple of drinks, and then come home, get ready for bed, and fall asleep.
But then, a few hours later, you wake up and have a hard time getting back to sleep. At some point, you glance at the clock–– and it’s 2 am–– again. Why does your body decide to wake up at this time, seemingly every time?
Well, there are a few different reasons for this, and they’re all pretty fascinating. In the article below, we’ll explore the concept of the “Chinese Body Clock” (also known as the Meridian Clock, or the Organ Clock), to shine light on the intricate processes that are occurring while we sleep and wake.
Circadian Rhythms & The Chinese Body Clock
Both Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Western medicine recognize that our bodies have their own internal clocks. In Western medicine, we call it our circadian rhythm, (great article on this here), while in Chinese medicine, we call it our “organ,” “body,” or “meridian,” clock.
Everything in nature requires balance between work and rest. In order to function properly, each of our organs need downtime to cleanse and repair themselves. The study of circadian rhythms, aka chronobiology, tells us that many of our body’s essential restorative processes happen with our organs at night.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), has roots predating Western medicine by a few thousand years, and takes the concept of a “body clock” even further.
Not only does TCM acknowledge the many different “housekeeping” processes that our organs undertake at night, they even assign a certain hourly window dedicated to each organ’s prime functioning time, as well as a suggested daily flow of activities in order to best support these natural processes.
So, Why Am I Waking Up at 2 am?
To get back to our original question of why am I waking up at 2 am? –– the hours between 1 am- 3 am are prime time for liver function. Our liver is responsible for the smooth flow of qi (in Eastern medicine, that essentially means our energy) and blood production in the body. So if you’re often waking up between the hours of 1 am-3 am, it could have something to do with your liver.
If you drank alcohol the night before, this could increase liver activity and cause an imbalance of heat or “yang” energy in the body–– triggering your rise from slumber.
It’s also important to note that, in Traditional Chinese Medicine, our organs are closely associated with different emotions. The liver correlates with the emotion of anger–– including frustration and irritability. So if you carry anger in your body, and rise between 1 am-3 am feeling hot and agitated, there could be an emotional component tied to your inability to sleep.
The Chinese Body Clock, Explained
To understand how the Chinese body clock works in Traditional Chinese Medicine, we must first understand the concept of yin and yang. Yin and yang are terms to describe the two energetic forces that, together, maintain balance throughout the universe. They are opposite, but complementary, and one cannot exist without the other.
The well-known image below illustrates the two energies of yin (black) and yang (white).
The following chart offers a few examples of energies that are considered to be more “yin” in nature, and others that are more “yang.”
Fundamental to Eastern philosophy is the notion that nothing in our universe is all yin or all yang–– we are both, we need both, and life is a dynamic flux between the two energies.
Because of this, each one of our organs also needs time spent in each energy–– work and rest.
In TCM, our energy (qi), is said to circulate throughout each of the “meridians” in our body over the course of a 24 hour period. Meridians are the different pathways connecting energy and blood-flow throughout our organs.
The Chinese body clock breaks down each 24 hour period into 2 hour blocks of time, and suggests that each 2 hour block of time is dedicated to the primary functioning of a particular organ (or bodily system). While all of our organs are functioning all of the time, each 2-hour window highlights the organ’s peak time for functioning.
The next diagram and explanations of time frames will illustrate how the Body Clock works in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
How The Chinese Body Clock Works
1 am – 3 am
Ideal activities during this time of day: Deep sleep, and dreaming. This is when your body is cleaning blood and processing waste. If you wake up during this time, it could indicate depletion, and/or excessive intake of yang foods like alcohol or animal products.
3 am – 5 am
Emotion: Grief & sadness
Ideal activities during this time of day: Sleep, and breathing. Some ancient cultures use this time for meditation, as it is an important time for the lungs to detoxify and respire.
5 am – 7 am
Organ: Large Intestine
Emotion: Stagnation and guilt
Ideal activities during this time of day: As you begin to wake up, this time is associated with deep breathing and releasing toxins from the night before. Gentle exercise can help release the bowels.
7 am – 9 am
Ideal activities during this time of day: Eat a nourishing breakfast. In TCM, some say breakfast should be your biggest meal of the day, since this is when your stomach is most primed for digestion.
9 am – 11 am
Organs: Pancreas & Spleen
Ideal activities during this time of day: Digesting, and thinking. This is when the food passes from the stomach to spleen, and begins to be converted into energy. It is understood to be a time where you can more easily access clarity and be capable of mentally-taxing work.
11 am – 1 pm
Emotion: Amplified joy or sadness
Ideal activities during this time of day: Enjoy a lighthearted, energetic lunch with others.
1 pm – 3 pm
Organ: Small intestine
Ideal activities during this time of day: Again, the digestive system is at work during this time, so it can be a good time to process emotions, mental activities, or take a nap.
3 pm – 5 pm
Ideal activities during this time of day: This is when your bladder expels metabolic waste from earlier in the day. It can be a good time to continue working, studying, or engage in light exercise.
5 pm – 7 pm
Ideal activities during this time of day: During this time, the kidneys are working to regulate bodily functions and replenish vital energy. This is a good time to begin winding down, and eat dinner.
7 pm – 9 pm
Organ: Circulatory System
Emotion: Compassion & excitement
Ideal activities during this time of day: A time for relaxing, pleasant self-care activities, such as a bath, gentle stretching, or quality time with loved ones.
9 pm – 11 pm
Organ: Endocrine/lymphatic system
Ideal activities during this time of day: A time to hydrate before easing into sleep for the evening.
11 pm – 1 am
Ideal activities during this time of day: This is when your gallbladder is releasing bile, cleansing tissues and processing fats. If you do not rest during this time, it could have an adverse effect on your digestive system.
As with all approaches to health, it’s wise to remain curious and avoid dogmatism. As Western medicine increasingly acknowledges the roles that energy, nutrition and exercise play in overall health, it can be helpful to explore time honored paradigms like TCM, which have for centuries focused on energy, nutrition and exercise as fundamentals to overall health.
The translation from historic TCM and Eastern philosophy to a modern, Westernized way of living undoubtedly requires adjustments and customizations. Still, in the way that nothing can be all “yin” or all “yang,” we can look to both Eastern and Western traditions to complement and support us— when we’re trying to figure out why we’re waking up at 2am, and beyond.
Interested in learning more cutting-edge health tips? Stay informed with the TelMD Upstream Blog!
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