Timing is Everything

Updated: Feb 5

Today's health tips have to do with timing. It's been on my mind as a piece I wrote about why New Year's Resolutions Don't Work blew up on social media and as we celebrate the Lunar New Year (Happy & Prosperous Year of the Black Water Tiger to you!)

Our animal bodies are time-keepers, no less or more than bears that annually head into hibernation or tigers that naturally wake at night and sleep during the day. We are diurnal (the opposite of nocturnal) mammals, like our monkey, dog, sheep, and elephant cousins.

I'm a big believer that wellness shouldn't be wrapped up in consumer culture. Many things that bring us good health and feelings of wellness are free and shouldn't add stress or strain to our plates, either. I want to focus on some simple ways we can enhance our wellness just by paying more attention to our daily rhythms, especially those unrelenting daily necessities: sleeping & eating.

Conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and mental health challenges, are all documented as being responsive to the regulation of our sleep, and the potential systemic benefits of regular meal timing & eating habits are just now being understood by the Western medical establishment. (Nevermind that Indigenous medicine traditions from across the globe, Maimonides to Li Dong Yuan, have shared this wisdom.) And no, this isn't about diets. and it will never be about diets. (But that's a different post.).

Sleep, Light, & the Circadian Rhythm

The cues that tell our bodies what time to do it's various functions are called Zeitgebers, translated as time-givers from German. The number-one time-giver that regulates our Central Nervous System is light. Exposure to light ramps up cortisol production and a number of other wake-time necessities. Lack of light lures us into rest so we can take care of sleep-time processes like cellular repair and memory formation.

The effects of getting enough sleep & getting truly restful sleep are systemic; it impacts our mental & emotional health, our cardiovascular health, our immune system, our metabolism and more. If "sitting was the new smoking" 5 years ago, it's my hope that sleep & circadian rhythm disturbances will be the new sitting. As many as 87% of day-working people face circadian rhythm disruptions due to the demands of their work or social schedules.

In the paradigm of East Asian Medicine, we've long preached about the replenishing power of sleep. Every day we have the opportunity to fill up our cups with enough good food and good rest that we don't draw from the well of our ancestral gifts to have energy for our daily activities. If we're not getting enough rest, we will start to draw from a bank account of energy that can't be replenished, a treasure trove of energy for your lifetime that we call Jing.

The good news is, you can use the pressures and assistance of your Circadian rhythm to help build better sleep for yourself. If you're one of the many struggling with falling asleep, staying asleep, or feeling energized in the morning, the first place to start is with the practice of dimming lights & getting away from screens several hours before your intended bedtime. I'm not prescriptive here because I think the science of Chronotypes is teaching us a lot about individual variation.

Once you've got good sleep hygiene in place, if you're needing more support for restful sleep, practices that help your brain learn to sink into a parasympathetic, resting state like Yoga Nidra, Breathwork & Meditation, and Acupuncture can be a next step. If you're needing extra support around high-anxiety times, big life changes, or other pressures, the plant world has a lot to offer; work with an herbalist to get the right blend for you.

Food Timing & The Digestive Fire

Another time-giver for our body is food intake. Your gut has a daily clock inside it. A number of hormones and digestive enzymes are created in anticipation of food, and your body comes to anticipate this food by the daily timing of previous meals. While the research on exactly the chain of hormones and tissues affected by the rhythm of food intake is still ongoing, what does get published continues to validate the wisdom of thousands of years of East Asian Medicine tradition, largely scribed 1000 years ago in a text called the Pi Wei Lun authored by Li Dong Yuan:

In East Asian Medicine, we refer to the Stomach as a cauldron; this metaphor helps us understand the way the Stomach is responsible for "cooking", softening, and breaking down food into it's smallest components. According to the Chinese Medicine clock, the Stomach is most "on" between 7-9AM, and it's best friend, the Spleen/Pancreas rules the hours of 9-11AM. The stomach does the manual labor of breaking things down and pouring on the acids so that in the Small Intestine bile salts & digestive enzymes have maximum access to the small molecules. The Small Intestine then absorbs nutrients into the blood stream. We say that the Small Intestine is the "Sorter of the Pure from the Impure". "Pure" aspects of food get absorbed in the small intestine & sent around the body to the tissues where they're needed, and the "impure" things continue down the digestive tube to eventually be released. In our East Asian Medicine daily clock, the Small Intestine has the most energy between 1-3PM. All together this means our digestive firepower is strongest in the morning & early afternoon.

The Daily East Asian Medicine Organ Clock

You could, in fact, organize your whole day around optimizing for the "Organ Clock" taught by East Asian Medicine. Each of the main 12 organs which rule all the functions of the body has a two hour window where its Qi, or energy, is strongest.

  • 3-5 AM Lung: Continued deep sleep. Starting to wake. A good time to meditate and/or exercise if awake.

  • 5-7 AM Large Intestine: Move the bowels. Meditate if you haven't already.

  • 7-9 AM Stomach: Eat a warm breakfast. Soaked grains like Congee or Oats are best.

  • 9-11 AM Spleen: Digest breakfast. We have capacity to take in new information & digest it. Focus is high.

  • 11-1 PM Heart: Activities that require alertness & connection. Eat lunch.

  • 1-3 PM Small Intestine: More digestive time, both for food & information.

  • 3-5 PM Bladder: Final push of "work" energy for the day. Drink water.

  • 5-7 PM Kidney: Light dinner & no strenuous activity. Stretching or Yin Yoga are appropriate exercises.

  • 7-9 PM Pericardium: A time for connection. Turn off screens, spend heart-to-heart time with others or in peace with yourself.

  • 9-11 PM San Jiao: Wind down & aim for sleep by 11pm so the creative energy of the Gallbladder doesn't draw you into a late night & instead is applied to creative dreamtime.

  • 11-1 AM Gallbladder: Light sleep leading into Deep Sleep.

  • 1-3 AM Liver: Deep sleep. Cellular repair, memory formation, blood cleansing, dreaming (a way of guiding the spirit) are all happening.

Thanks for reading, wishing you restful sleep, delicious meals, and an easy rhythm of your days until next time.


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