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It is essential for the human body, but for most people the art of having good sleep eludes them. From sudden coughs in the wee hours of the morning to waking up irritable, and having blurry eyes, all these seemingly insignificant symptoms have an explanation according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In the west, it is the circadian rhythm otherwise more commonly called the body clock, whereas, in TCM, it is the Twelve Meridians body clock.

While buzzwords like “circadian rhythm” and “sleep hygiene” have been trending in the wellness space for some time, the 2,500-year-old school of thought behind the Chinese Medicine body clock takes things a step further by examining the functionality of our internal organs during our sleep-wake cycle. That’s right—our organs aren’t set to some automatic switch; our kidneys need time for self-care too. 

“Within our 24-hour clock, Chinese medicine assigns organ systems to different time segments,” explains Jessica Maynard, a licensed acupuncturist at Northwestern Health Sciences University’s Bloomington Clinic. “There are 12 different organs in the meridian system in the body.”

Simply put, it is not about sleeping 5-8 hours every night, but when to sleep is more vital in TCM. Not sleeping during the ‘shíchen’ of certain Meridians can affect the corresponding organs and that can in turn cause havoc on the body.

The 12 meridians in TCM each correlate to a ‘shíchen’, the time measurement used in ancient China, which is equivalent to two hours. Simply put, it is not about sleeping 5-8 hours every night, but when to sleep is more vital in TCM. Not sleeping during the ‘shíchen’ of certain Meridians can affect the corresponding organs and that can in turn cause havoc on the body.

According to these TCM Meridians, the golden time for sleep is between 11pm to 5am, which covers three Meridians: the Gallbladder, the Liver, and the Lung. From 11pm – 1am is  ‘zǐshí’, the time of the Gallbladder Meridian, which is the best time to sleep. It is important to avoid eating just before this time as it increases the burden of the gallbladder and interferes with digestion and sleep.

From 1am – 3am is ‘chǒushí’, the Liver Meridian time and is best suited for resting and nurturing both the liver and blood. Not being asleep during this time can cause liver problems that result in a grey-looking face, tiredness, blurry eyes, and irritability. From 3am – 5am is ‘yínshí’, the time of the Lung Meridian, and deep sleep during this time helps to nurture the lungs. It is also important to keep warm during this time as the body is prone to coughing.

A lot of people nowadays are night owls from being inundated with study or work, so sleeping before 11pm remains an elusive dream for many. However, the organs of the three meridians between 11pm to 5am detox best when asleep at this time. So it’s best to commit at least one day per week to a proper sleep schedule according to the TCM approach.

Another way to make up for sleep is to take a nap, which is best during ‘wǔshí’, the time of the Heart Meridian between 11am to 1pm. ‘Yang qi’ which is the driving force of biological activities in the human body, is at its strongest during this time. The nap should last between 15 minutes to an hour, and it’s important to keep the body warm for the duration of the nap.

Beyond the meridians, some TCM treatments such as acupuncture have been proven in studies to help with sleeping and mental disorders. A series of studies have been investigating how acupuncture and electro-acupuncture can help with insomnia and depression through clinical trials, starting with the Dec 2016 study that was then continued in the April 2019 study.

The initial study showed that ‘acupuncture is an effective treatment to improve patients’ sleep efficacy, prolong total sleep time (TST) and relieve patients’ depressive mood’. The discussion of the 2019 study provided more details. They aimed to stimulate certain acupressure points using electro-acupuncture to return the body to a state of balance.

The two important acupressure points are Baihui (GV20) and Yintang (GV29). Baihui is on the top of the head, its Chinese name meaning ‘hundred meeting’, and is where the ‘qi’ of six meridians of the body converge. Yintang is the center point between your eyebrows and is believed to relieve stress, anxiety and cardiovascular conditions, since it promotes the blood circulation in your brain and your body’s ‘qi’.

A frequency of 30 Hz was used for the treatment and found to ‘enhance(s) the effect of soothing nerves. In addition, a functional connectivity MRI (fcMRI) study suggested that electro-acupuncture at GV20 (Baihui) and GV29 (Yintang) may have an effect on mental disorders.’

TCM Recommendations For Sleep

Other important factors include regulating your mental state before you sleep. TCM believes that the heart should sleep first, meaning that one should keep their emotions and mind calm. Being upset could cause heartache, whilst anger could result in liver imbalance. Some recommended activities before bed is reading, a light relaxing walk, or having a hot foot soak.

To help with keeping your mind calm and emotions in check, it is recommended to minimize talking before sleep. Conversations that affect your emotions, or speaking loudly before sleeping can drain your lungs and reduce the quality of your sleep. Similarly, if you are very hungry or too full, consuming strong tea or coffee, these factors can also make it difficult for one to fall asleep soundly.

There are also recommendations for sleeping positions, one of which is to sleep with your head facing the east as it follows the flow of ‘yang qi’. Additionally, sleeping on your right side like a bow, allows the body to relax and the organs to keep their natural position, ideal for the flow of ‘qi and blood’. Despite this, it is still most important for one to sleep in a position that feels most comfortable and natural to you.

From these TCM recommendations for sleep, which aspects stand out the most to you? Would you be interested in following the Twelve Meridians body clock for better sleep? 

By Nam Cheah

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The use of information on this website or materials linked from this website is at the user’s own risk. Users should not disregard, or delay in obtaining, medical advice for any medical condition they may have, and should seek the assistance of their health care professionals for any such conditions.

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