The Chinese Organ Clock

In Chinese Medical theory, there are peak times for activities of the various organs. This concept is useful because when we are out of balance with disease or other issues, sometimes we can find clues based on the time of the symptoms. The above graphic shows us not only when each organ (as conceived in Chinese Medicine) is most active, but also explains which of the 5 elements they are associated with. More on that complicated topic in later blogs, but let’s just keep it simple for now. This clock is a great concept to help guide you on the best times of day to eat, sleep, and work.

As you can see, most of us wake up between 5 and 7 am. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this is a time when the bowel is active. Many people have a regular bowel movement upon awakening. This is a natural, healthy time to do so. Then, between 7 and 9 am, it’s the time the stomach is most active. This is why breakfast is so crucial, and why skipping the first meal of the day can really impact your energy. Indeed, my integrative medicine physician always advises that if you are going to fast (intermittent fasting is all the rage these days), it should be later in the day. An expression he always shares: eat your first meal like a prince, your second like a peasant, and your third like a pauper. There’s a whole body of evidence on why eating most of your calories earlier in the day makes sense from a Western scientific perspective as well. But as is often the case, Chinese philosophers figured this out a few millennia ago.

Later in the morning, we have the spleen and heart hard at work. For all of my fellow morning larks out there who are most productive early in the day – this is our time to shine. Perhaps some coffee and a relatively light lunch power us through the work day’s tasks, or on our weekend warrior fitness routines. We have energy to spare for our bodies and top mental clarity. Note – the spleen has a fairly different role than in the Western conception, primarily it is thought to help pull qi (energy) from food to fuel us.

In the afternoon hours, we tend to slow down physically and mentally. Again, this isn’t a Chinese phenomenon only. There’s a reason the Europeans have their siestas – we become drowsy after a decent lunch and our circadian rhythm hits its lowest point of the waking day. We are wired to want to rest up for a bit. We may catch a bit of a second wind as the late afternoon turns to evening and the bladder releases the excess from our earlier meals.

Dinnertime can be a controversial topic. Many in the West like their last meal at 7 or 8 pm. When I was living in South Asia, it seemed you wouldn’t dream of dinner until 9 or 10 pm (this was like torture for me). But in the Chinese perspective (and thankfully, the Midwest from which I originate), it must be 5-7pm for supper. This will optimize the ability of the kidney to store nutrients. Also, as per my doctor, one doesn’t want to eat a big heavy meal in the evening. Indeed, as a sleep health professional, I often hear of patients who are kept up with their GERD (reflux) due to consuming rich/spicy foods late at night. It can seem like a heresy here on the East Coast of the US from where I am writing, but I urge you to take your dinner more like an elderly relative than a busy/youthful worker-bee. Your body (and your sleep) will thank you.

We hit wind-down time between 7 and 11 pm, perhaps the best time of the day. This is meant for relaxation, self care, sex, fun, etc. The pericardium again has a slightly different role in Chinese Medicine and the Triple Burner is an organ with no counterpart in the West. But in all cases, we are meant to relax and enjoy life in these times. Take heed – all ye late night gym rats and midnight oil burners!

We should be getting ready to sleep between 9 and 10 pm, but definitely no later than 11pm-12a (the world can agree on this, sorry shift working friends and thank you for your sacrifices). This will enable the gallbladder and liver to do their work clearing toxins and regenerating cells. We should be in our deepest sleep between 1 and 5 am, with the lungs doing a final detox just before we wake up.

The version of the clock below shows a little bit more of the pathophysiology which can happen when we don’t stick to our hardwired natural rhythms. When we don’t listen to our body, or have symptoms in a certain organ, it can be telling us something about the root cause, and maybe the treatment.

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The sleep nerd in me likes to focus on the nighttime hours, where different types of insomnia can present with unique causes. If your insomnia hits early in the night, it may be that you can’t shut off your brain or relax. Again, the metaphors work seamlessly between the triple burner being overly active or perhaps your mind being ruminative or not being able to switch off. If you wake up in the middle of the night, it could be an issue with your digestion. As someone who has had my gallbladder removed, I absolutely remember the torture of always waking up at what seemed like 1 AM with that sharp/stabbing pain in my upper right side.

If you’ve overdone it with the alcohol or other partying, you’re likely to pay for it more around 2 am, when your liver is overwhelmed trying to clear out the toxins. Remember that while alcohol can induce sleepiness early on, it does contribute to worsening sleep as the night wears on, just as the clock predicts. Finally, some insomniacs have their worst times late in the night/early in the morning, when the lung is active. In Chinese medicine, the lung is the organ of grief. If we have lost a loved one, or are experiencing some other form of loss, often this is when it will hit. By paying attention to when your insomnia is happening, you may find answers to the underlying cause.

Following the model of health offered by this unique conception of biological time can be useful for any of us. Next time you can’t sleep, pay attention to what time it is and think about how you may be stressing the related organ. Consider shifting your meal times to what the ancient sages advise, and see if maybe your reflux and energy don’t improve. Try to schedule important work and productive periods or exercise when your mind and body are most able to support you.

I’ve been sticking fairly closely to this clock for a year or so and have found it most beneficial. Indeed, the Dalai Lama sticks to a somewhat modified version of the schedule, and he’s obviously up to great things! My favorite part is that he goes to bed around 7 PM, which is my goal time. I catch a lot of flack for this, but I feel in great company.

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