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TCM Body Clock: Why Do We Wake Up or Feel Ill at a Certain Time of Day?

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clock sourced from comfytummy.com
When will we understand how ahead of us our ancient ancestors were? Long ago, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) discovered that there is a “body clock” that is reflected in the energy meridians which are linked to different organs.


The 24 hour clock is divided into 12 two-hour intervals of the Qi (vital force) moving through the organ system. During sleep, Qi is drawn inward to restore the body. This phase is completed between 1 and 3 A.M., when the liver cleanses the blood and performs a myriad of functions that prepare the body for the Qi to move outward again.

The 12 hours after the prime functioning of the liver (which would be from 3 A.M. to 3 P.M.) include the energy cycles of the organs associated with daily activity: digestion and elimination. These organs include the lungs, large intestine, stomach, spleen/pancreas, heart and small intestine.

After 3 P.M., the flow of energy again moves inward to support internal organs associated with repairing the system. The purpose of this is to circulate fluids and heat, as well as to filter and cleanse. This time affects the pericardium, triple burner (coordinates water functions and temperature), bladder, kidneys, circulation/sex and the liver.

When one organ is at its peak energy, the organ at the opposite side of the clock, 12 hours away, is at its lowest ebb. For example, between 1-3 A.M., the liver reaches its peak, doing its work to cleanse the blood. At the same time, the small intestine (the organ responsible for the absorption and assimilation of many key nutrients) is at its lowest function.

What does this mean in real life application? For starters, it logically explains why you are taxing the system when it has to deal with late night meals and snacking. The body is not programmed to accommodate the modern habit of late-night eating habits and stimulation. When we eat late at night, food is not well absorbed by the small intestine (since it is resting) and the liver has little opportunity to do its job of housekeeping.

Why do we abruptly wake or feel ill at certain times of day?

The other morning I woke up at 5:26 A.M. from a nightmare about my teeth crumbling out of my mouth! Yes, I know that’s incredibly strange – a fun fact about me is that I have insane dreams that feel real, ALL the time. Once I had a dream that I was a horse. Literally. I was walking down the avenue by my house, just trotting on by, totally fine with the fact that I had four legs. Another time I had a dream that a teacher microwaved my tongue. I’ve never been normal, per say, so I suppose it comes with the territory?!

Anyway — the night I had the teeth dream I was a) dehydrated (drinking water is SO important) and b) constipated. TMI, but it happens to the best of us. I’m pretty sure (b) was caused by (a) because warm water with ginger and lemon upon waking did the trick. Regardless, both dehydration and constipation deal with the large intestine, which correctly lines up with the hours of 5-7 A.M. How fabulous is the human body? It is always leaving us clues in the forms of symptoms. Our symptoms are our friends; they are the language in which our body speaks. That’s why I love Chinese medicine… there are always charts and guides that allow you to translate these clues into the underlying issue.

As we discussed above, each “meridian” or organ system has a two hour period where they are the primary meridian. The meridians, however, are not just related to organs. They are linked to thoughts and emotions, color, sound, seasons and other spiritual aspects as well. When the energy of a meridian is not flowing well due to a block (like stress or toxicity), you’ll find that you’ll experience a sign or symptom from the meridian involved (just like my nightmare/abrupt waking).

If you also find you are waking up at the same time each night, or falling into a slump around 3 P.M., you can look at the meridian at work and what may be happening with you. 

Here is a detailed list of the function of each meridian/organ system as well as the emotions that go with it. This is very important. Sometimes if we wake up at 3 A.M., it’s simply because we have a purely physical issue, i.e. the liver is not processing waste correctly or is hindered by gallstones. However, sometimes, the physical symptoms are manifesting because of an underlying emotion. The liver is heavily associated with anger, frustration, and rage; so if you’re waking up at 3 it might be because you’re holding onto toxic emotions that you must work through.

List of meridian functions from mcuniverse.com:

3am – 5am : Lung Time

  • Early stirring gentle breathing
  • Grief
  • Sadness

The toxic waste from your lungs becomes loosened between 3 to 5 am, and when you awaken, this is why you cough sometimes. Your lungs are trying to expel the loosened waste. If you are coughing in the morning, this indicates that your diet and lifestyle needs tweaking in order to reduce mucus and toxicity. Feeling ill at this time can also be an indication of deep grief that must be dealt with.

5am – 7am : Large Intestine Time

  • Rising and defecating
  • Guilt
  • Stuck
  • Defensiveness

To get the day off to a good start, give yourself enough time early in the morning to honor the normal elimination function of the large intestine. The morning is the most important time to drink plenty of water and the worst time to have caffeine. Caffeine is a diuretic and takes water away from your colon to the kidneys and bladder for evacuation, but your body need water in the morning to keep up its repair and maintenance of the large intestine and colon. If you are feeling bad at this time, drink lots of water. Drinking plenty of water at this time keeps you from getting constipated, gaining weight, looking and feeling older and improves your overall health. From an emotional perspective, you may need to let go of guilt.

7am – 9am : Stomach Time

  • Healthy eating
  • Disgust
  • Despair

Now the flow of energy moves to the stomach stimulating hunger. You are encouraged to eat a hearty, healthy breakfast and thereby producing good amounts of long-lasting energy. Eating larger meals of the day early delivers nourishment to the small intestine when it is strongest, which aids absorption and assimilation. Issues during this time may mean that your stomach is too cold (especially since we as a Western society love salads, ice water, and smoothies!) Be sure to drink ginger tea to nourish the stomach.

9am – 11am : Pancreas/Spleen Time

  • Thinking and working
  • Jealousy/Worry
  • Low Self-esteem

TCM considers the Spleen the most important digestive organ, so even a late breakfast will be digested easily. On the other hand, this is also the time when allergies can show up the strongest because the Spleen is busy working with the Liver and your immune system. A healthy spleen produces antibodies when there is an infection and constantly watches the blood for invaders. Illness during this time can mean your spleen is deficient, or you are worrying/having self esteem issues. The spleen is also aided by ginger tea (Lily’s solution to everything!)

11am – 1pm : Heart Time

  • Meeting talking and eating
  • Joy
  • Frightfully Sad

Don’t overtax your heart at this time. You may sometimes notice a rapid heartbeat, double beats and/or skipping beats during this time period. Research shows that seventy percent of heart attacks occur during this time frame. Being full of joy, enthusiastic and restful makes the heart stronger, whereas the opposite emotions of saddness and gloom weaken the heart. Doing anything heat inducing during this time is not good for optimal heart health as the heart has an aversion to heat according to the TCM. 

1pm – 3pm : Small Intestine Time

  • Sorting and organizing
  • Insecurity
  • Vulnerable / Gullible
  • Feelings of Abandonment

Have you noticed that between 1 to 3 pm you are more apt to have indigestion, pain and bloating? This shows a problem with your small intestine. Are you feeling insecure, self doubt, or abandoned? Do you have leaky gut? Bone broth soup can work wonders for gut issues and malabsorption.

3pm – 5pm : Bladder Time

  • Storing and reserving
  • associated with the Skin
  • Irritation
  • Timidity

At this time you may notice that you are tired and want a nap. Salty foods strengthen the Bladder, so drinking a cup of savory miso soup or nutrient-rich broth would be beneficial at this time.

5pm – 7pm : Kidney Time

  • Driving and consolidating
  • Fear
  • Terror

The feeling of being tired and wanting a nap could continue into this time frame. On the other hand when the Kidneys are healthy and working properly, you will feel energetic at this time and not tired. The kidneys are aligned with the adrenals, the glands that produce cortisol to help us spring out of bed in the morning. Early morning, from 5-7 am, is when kidney energy is weakest—a reason that people with depleted kidney energy often have trouble waking up to a new day.

7pm – 9pm : Pericardium, Circulation Sex Time

  • Associated with the brain, including the pituitary and hypothalamus and the reproductive organs
  • Socializing and flirting
  • Unresponsive
  • Hurt/Extreme Joy
  • Inability to Express Emotions
  • Depleted

Between 7 to 9 pm do you have intense cravings for sweets or processed carbohydrates that turn to sugar immediately in the system? The reason is because the Kidneys regulate the Pancreas, and if you do consume sweets during that period, you may notice lower back pain, which is a kidney symptom. The kidneys, bladder and pancreas are all parts of the same whole. If you need a nap early in the evening it is just your pancreas, as directed by your kidneys, putting you out so it can do its repairs.

9pm – 11pm : Triple Warmer Time

  • Associated with the Thyroid and Adrenals
  • Controls Metabolism
  • Energy Transfer and Regulates Temperature
  • Relaxing and Chilling
  • Hopelessness
  • Confusion, Paranoia

The Triple Warmer governs Blood Vessels and Arteries. From 9 to 11 pm the blood vessels go into repair mode. If you get headaches, feel abnormally tired or weak, this means that the blood vessels are in heavy repair.

11pm – 1am : Gall Bladder Time

  • Sleeping and regenerating
  • Bitterness
  • Resentment

(Related to liver, see below) 

1am – 3 am: Liver Time

  • Deep resting and dreaming
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Rage

The Liver and Gallbladder spring into action between 11 pm to 3 am. Do you ever have nights when you can’t sleep at this time? This means that waste is not being processed by your liver and it acts as an irritant to your body causing insomnia and frayed nerves. Your brain just won’t stop. You may need to deal with unresolved anger and grudges towards others.

source: healingqigong.org

Understanding that every organ has a repair/maintenance schedule to keep on a daily basis offers you the opportunity to learn how to treat yourself for improved health and well-being. It also allows you to identify exactly which organ system or emotion needs strengthening/resolving. Always use your symptoms and body cues as a guide, and if you make a connection above, such as that you get sleepy between 5-7pm, don’t hesitate to research what you can do to strengthen that meridian (which would be the Kidneys). A great solution to deficient kidneys is having a sweet potato for breakfast!

Make sure to look at the emotional aspect too. If you’re sleepy during kidney time, do you have any fears holding you back from reaching your true potential? Are you afraid of rejection? Failure? Addressing this emotion will strengthen the organ and improve your physical health forever.

With the transferable knowledge of TCM you can use the clock for any time of day. I look forward to writing many more pieces about this amazing, ancient system of medicine!

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13 Comments

  1. April says:

    Absolutely fantastic information and answers to many issues I have been dealing with. Thank you SO much for this!

  2. Linda says:

    I remember telling my naturopath that I kept on waking up at 3:00 am each morning. I was amazed when she knew right away from that piece of information that my liver was toxic. She has me drink dandelion juice to clean out my liver and I stopped waking up at that time. It really is amazing how advanced Chinese medicine is. Too bad western medicine (aka. “sick care”) has gone the opposite direction, which makes us sick.

  3. sylvia says:

    What an amazing young woman. Thanks and God Bless You for researching and posting the invaluable information. I feel that I finally have information that can help me. Have been puzzled by the sudden overwhelming feelings of fatigue, sometimes pain and generally feeling blah that suddenly overcomes me at certain hours. with your cogent explanations and the chart I can now address these bouts and heal them. I am onto Chinese Medicine myself, getting more into it by the moment.

  4. Maja Horvat says:

    Absoultely amazing information. I never studied TCM, but I’ve always been more inclined to their way of approaching health and illnes.

  5. Rod says:

    Yes, this chart reflects our intuitive feelings !
    I am sorry about that nightmare thing, it is my experience that the diet affects a lot to the quality of sleep.
    Once again, avoiding grains , sugar and dairy helps me a lot to get sound sleep .
    thanks for sharing!

  6. Bronwyn says:

    The pericardium is a sac surrounding the heart that has the sole purpose of giving the heart a slippery skin to prevent friction and stop it rubbing on surrounding tissue and the lungs. What you think it has to do with circulation, kidneys, and pancreas I don’t know.. but it is literally just a protective skin for the heart.

    • Len. Mackenzie says:

      Bronwyn, you could say that about any organ in the body. Trust Traditional Chinese Acupuncture, and the circulatory systems internally and on the surface of the body. Learn about those aspects of energy flows and the whole circulatory system. Then accept that the knowledge gained hundreds of years ago is factual and it works. And one more thing. The triple heater or Sanjiao circuitry is totally intangible, but the known facts of it’s amazing effects on the whole body is indesputable. Medical Science isn’t always the answer. I know that, I was in practice as a Tradional Acupuncturist for 25 years. L.D.M.

  7. Debbie says:

    I was absolutely amazed how much of this was true for me. I recently have been taking naps between 5 and 7 pm…just in the past month or two. A month ago I was diagnosed with a kidney stone (which still hasn’t passed). I also have trouble waking up…and have hypersomnia. Just wish the article had include more about how to combat this. (I already drink lots of water.)

  8. Heidi says:

    Question about the heart not heating between 11am – 1pm: I teach a Noon Zumba class twice a week on my lunch hour. Is this information suggesting that this is not an ideal time to work out?

    Otherwise, this is all very interesting & I was just talking to my Naturopath about this as I’ve been waking around 1am – Liver detox. He asks me, “have you been eating a lot of cheese?” I had. How does he know EVERYTHING?! 😉 He’s put me on some herbs – I’m only a few days in & he said it would take time……….but I’m already sleeping better.

  9. Surendra Binnani says:

    It’s really great information I hope it will help nd open mind of different people how to remain healthy

  10. Marcelo Adrián Loguancio says:

    Gracias por estos aportes Soy instructor de Qi Gong en Argentina Siempre me ayudan estos apuntes

  11. Nuplenish says:

    Wonderful post however , I was wondering if you could write a litte more
    on this topic? I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit more.
    Thanks!

  12. Iliana says:

    Thank you very much Olivia for being so nice sharing this valuable information and guidenes!

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