Most of us think of the body clock, or circadian rhythm, as the internal system that regulates when we fall asleep and wake up. (When it’s dark, you snooze, and when it’s bright, you’re active—at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.) But there’s so much more to your inner timekeeper, especially when considered through the ancient wisdom of traditional Chinese medicine.
According to the 2,500-year-old school of thought, just about every function of your body is linked to a specific time on your internal clock. “Each organ has a two-hour time period [each day] when it’s in the spotlight,” says Mona Dan, acupuncturist, herbalist, and founder of Vie Healing in Los Angeles. This is the time when that particular organ and its related meridians are said to be most energized and working hardest, affecting everything from your emotions to your productivity.
“The TCM approach to time may change the way you look at your day,” Dan says. For instance, you may want to schedule coffee dates with your friends between 11am and 1pm, as this is when joyful heart energy’s thought to be at its peak. (Conversely, happy hour would be a bad idea under the TCM system, as 5pm-7pm is when we’re supposed to start replenishing our life-force energy.)
What’s more, TCM practitioners believe that your daily dips and spikes in vitality can give you valuable information into your hidden health imbalances. “When the energy of a meridian isn’t flowing well, you’ll experience certain signs,” Dan says. “The body communicates with us through symptoms, which give us clues as to what’s happening and what’s really needed internally. Finding and listening to these patterns helps us learn about what we each specifically need.” So, let’s say you’re waking up at a certain time in the middle of each night. You can turn to the TCM body clock for more intel on what may be behind your insomnia, says Dan.
Here, she takes us on a tour of the TCM body clock, sharing tips on how to optimize it through food and lifestyle choices. Think of it as a roadmap that’s meant to guide you toward working with your body’s natural rhythms, rather than against them.
This is how to plan an ideal day for your body and mind, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine.
3-5 a.m.: Snooze peacefully
Actions: Early stirring and gentle breathing
Emotions being processed: Grief and sadness
Soft inhales and exhales are key during this time, which is good news considering you’re likely already doing this as you sleep. “During sleep, you’re processing your day and enriching your body with oxygen through gentle breathing,” says Dan. “This process assists the body with the elimination of toxic waste and boosts immunity.” If you’re often waking up during these hours, she notes it can be an indication of sadness or grief that needs to be addressed. And if you’re jolted from a really good Nick Jonas dream with coughing or mucus, you may have to make a tweak to your lifestyle or diet. (A TCM practitioner can help guide you.)
5-7 a.m.: Drink some warm H2O and do a gentle workout
Organ: Large intestine
Actions: Waking up and releasing
Emotions being processed: Guilt and stagnation
“It’s best to start [the day] with warm water, as hydration allows the large intestine to begin its process of elimination,” Dan says. Sorry, but hot coffee doesn’t count. “Caffeine in the morning is what leads to the midday crash and the release of too much cortisol throughout the day,” she adds. You should also give yourself time upon waking up to relax and allow for your body to naturally detox, Dan says. This helps to not only physically process but emotionally deal with guilt and stagnation, which are the emotions associated with this time. “Physically moving and releasing internal excess assists with your emotions,” she says. Walk in the park, anyone?
7-9 a.m.: Eat a warming breakfast
Actions: Eating and nourishing
Emotions being processed: Despair
According to TCM, breakfast really is the most important meal of the day—so make it a big one. “A warming, hearty breakfast will assist in building good, long-lasting energy for the day,” says Dan. “Drinking hot tea enhances this.” She recommends avoiding cold smoothie bowls and shakes, as TCM believes they cause the stomach’s natural functions to contract and shut down. “Your internal organs feel the same way you do in the cold,” she says. “Despair is the emotion at this hour, so proper nourishment builds the energy needed to process this.”
9-11 a.m.: Do your most mentally taxing work
Organs: Pancreas and spleen
Actions: Thinking and working
Emotions being processed: Jealousy, worry, and low self-esteem
“In Chinese medicine, the spleen’s considered the most important digestive organ,” says Dan. “It’s key in building blood—so if you haven’t eaten by this time, you’ll still have a bit of time to squeeze in a good breakfast that’ll be digested well.” (Good news for not-so-early birds.) While your spleen’s busy transmuting food into usable energy, you’re better able to work and use your mental energy positively. “This builds confidence, which gives you the power of avoiding jealousy and low self-esteem,” adds Dan.
11 a.m.-1 p.m.: Eat a light lunch with friends
Actions: Engaging and consuming
Emotions being processed: Joy or frightful sadness
To keep things light and happy during these hours, Dan says to avoid overly taxing the body—you want your heart to work at its best. “This is an ideal time to enjoy a meal that’s lighter than breakfast,” she says. “Have a nice lunch over a good conversation for a happy heart.” (No sad desk salads, then.)
1-3 p.m.: Handle detail-oriented tasks
Organ: Small intestine
Actions: Separating the good from bad, and organizing
Emotions being processed: Insecurity
The body’s processing again after a second meal, separating usable energy from waste. “This separating action puts things into perspective for the body,” says Dan. “So it’s more common to deal with indigestion or bloating at this time.” (Yet another reason to go for a light lunch.) She says you’re also emotionally processing as this happens, and if insecurity comes up, to take notice and try to face it rather than repress it.
3-5 p.m.: Snack on something with salt (and avoid the p.m. coffee)
Action: Reserving and storing
Emotions being processed: Irritation, moving energy internally
According to Dan, this is the most common time for energy to take a nosedive. (Relatable.) “The body’s preparing at this time to settle into the evening,” she explains. “The thing is, with today’s busy schedules, people tend to get off work and want to begin their night, which doesn’t help the low energy.” To avoid this, she recommends laying off the caffeine in the later morning hours so that your body doesn’t expend so much energy in the first half of the day. Oh, and TCM pro tip: “Enjoying a bit of salt at this time keeps the bladder satisfied,” she says.
5-7 p.m.: Start to wind down
Actions: Replenishing vital energy
Emotions being processed: Fear
If you’re feeling an extreme level of fatigue around this time of day, after the typical afternoon drop, Dan says you may have an issue with your adrenals. “Physically healthy adrenals feel vibrant at this time, but feelings of fear can creep in if they’re not in good shape,” she says. “Signs of kidney and adrenal fatigue include lack of libido, lower back pain, and early graying of the hair.” So if you’re someone who toils in the office after everyone else has gone home—or plans rowdy after-work drinks on the reg—and you’re experiencing these symptoms, you may want to reconsider your habits in favor of more R&R.
7-9 p.m.: Focus on self-care and QT with loved ones
Action: Emotional support
Emotions being processed: Excessive euphoria and compassion
In case you aren’t a biologist, the pericardium supports your heart function. That’s why this time of day, according to Dan, is good for meditation, gentle stretching, relaxing with a loved one, or taking a bath. (All of the above, thanks!) “Heal the heart and wind the body down for the day during these hours,” she says.
9-11 p.m.: Hydrate before bed
Organ: Metabolism, blood vessels
Action: Relaxing and hydrating
Emotions being processed: Hopelessness and confusion
“The blood vessels, metabolism, and hydration of your body affect your adrenals and thyroid the most,” says Dan. “If you’re dealing with headaches or feeling deficient in general, it likely means you need hydration for better metabolism and repair and support for the blood.” Sleeping and relaxing during this time is important in order to keep the body healthy, she says.
11 p.m.-1 a.m.: Lights out
Action: Sleeping and regenerating
Emotions being processed: Indecisiveness and resentment
Body regeneration and healing are thought to happen in this window, which is why it’s the gallbladder’s time to shine. (The organ is associated with the muscles and sinews of the body in TCM.) “Physical musculature issues can be holding you back from proper regeneration, which is also correlated with an emotional battle with indecisiveness and resentment,” says Dan. A great excuse to get more massages—which may also help you relax so you can fall asleep earlier. “The gallbladder works to excrete bile and digest healthy fats. If you’re not resting by 11 p.m., you could have issues with digesting fats and the emotional components of decision making.”
1-3 a.m.: Seriously, turn off the Netflix
Action: Deep sleep and dreaming
Emotions being processed: Anger, anxiety, and frustration
Your liver’s the home of your blood and it’s related to the more fiery emotions, according to TCM. “Keeping your liver happy keeps your emotions in check,” says Dan. “If sleeping doesn’t happen at this time, you can quickly become weak.” So if you’re used to staying up until the early a.m. hours, this is a really good case for adopting an earlier bedtime. If you’re waking up between 1 and 3 a.m., says Dan, you should look into unaddressed anger, anxiety, or frustration. Because, of course, you want to sleep in peace.
For more ancient wisdom, this is how to have a healthy social media life, the Traditional Chinese Medicine way. And these are acne solutions based on TCM.
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