The Body & Time: The Chinese Organ Clock System

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If you’re familiar with acupuncture, you know that your practitioner will ask you about your daily routines, inquiring about your sleep, exercise, sleeping, eating, working, and relaxation. They may also ask you about what time you generally do each of these activities. These timing questions are not arbitrary. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, each organ is associated with a two-hour interval within the 24-hour period of a full day. This 2-hour interval is when that organ is strongest, meaning it is the time that that organ is most active and should be attended to and supported. If you are experiencing symptoms at a certain time of day, that may mean that the organ associated with that time is having a qi blockage. If you are never hungry, or even feel nauseous, between 7 and 9 AM, the interval associated with the stomach, this may mean that you have an imbalance in your stomach. Or if you are really stressed all the time, you may find that you are waking up a lot between 1 and 3 AM, which is the time of the liver, and may be indicative of a liver imbalance. Your acupuncturist can then tailor their treatment with this in mind.

As each organ or meridian in TCM is also associated with an emotion, you may notice your emotions and thoughts corresponding to this body clock system as well. Attune yourself to your body and your mind; notice how you are feeling and when. We have a tendency to generalize and oversimplify, making statements like, “I was tired today”; “I felt good today”; “I’ve been depressed lately.” But what does that really mean? Physically, what were you feeling? And when did you start feeling that? When did you stop feeling that? What was going through your mind at these points? Check in with yourself throughout the day: it might even be helpful to do a body scan and take notes on what comes up for you and when.

As you learn more about your body’s—and your mind’s—needs, you can adapt to a schedule that is more in line with flow and more balanced. But don’t worry that you need to completely readjust your life: as you’ll see, the TCM body clock is pretty intuitive and in line with how we generally set up our lives. Being able to have it laid out and to start looking at your experience can be a super helpful tool in your journey to healing. Read on to see which organ is associated with which time interval and how balance and imbalance often show up.

3 – 5 AM: Lung

In TCM, the lungs correspond to grief and worry, so any irregularities during this time may relate to that. If you notice yourself waking up a lot between these hours, give yourself kindness and compassion and let the emotions flow through you. As these emotions are connected to lungs, they may manifest in the body as short, shallow breathing or even breathlessness.

5 – 7 AM: Large Intestine

The large intestine, or bowel, is obviously associated with bowel movements and excretion and this is the time when your body naturally should want to do that. You can promote bowel movements and bowel health by drinking a large glass of warm water when you first wake up, to activate vasodilation and hydration, and to get things moving. The large intestine is also in charge of getting rid of negative emotions, so if you are waking up and already dreading your day or starting in on your negative thought patterns, you may be “emotionally constipated.”

7 – 9 AM: Stomach

Eat breakfast! The stomach is responsible for feeding all of your other organs so it’s important to eat a healthy, balanced and satiating meal in the morning to support this. Your stomach is also warmth-loving so eating warm and cooked foods is optimal. The stomach is very affected by stress, which anyone who’s ever had a stomach ache before some stressful event can attest to. Work on your stress management through meditation, acupuncture, joyful movement, and feeding yourself nutritious meals.

9 – 11 AM: Spleen

The spleen in TCM is associated with digestion and nutrient absorption—which makes sense after stomach time! If you often experience digestive issues around this time, you may have a spleen deficiency. Spleen deficiencies can be treated with acupuncture and modifications to your diet, but it’s important to also take a look at what you are doing during this period: are you chugging coffee, further inflaming your digestive tract? Are you sitting down to an inbox full of stressful work emails, activating the sympathetic nervous system? Notice your patterns and make sure you are supporting your spleen at this time of day.

11 AM – 1 PM: Heart

The heart houses the shen or spirit, which is why this is a great time in which to eat lunch—you want to feed your soul! In all seriousness, the stomach is associated with the heart, and is considered the heart’s “child.” TCM World Foundation explains that “if the Stomach is functioning well then the mother, the Heart is happy or less impacted. In this simple analogy we understand that Stomach energy must be in balance for Heart energy to be balanced.”

1 – 3 PM: Small Intestine

The small intestine is integral to digestion and absorption of food and nutrients, which makes sense after lunch—and breakfast earlier. This period is when this organ is strongest, so if you are feeling any gastrointestinal discomfort or have loose stools or painful urination during this time, this is a sure sign of an imbalance in this area.

3 – 5 PM: Bladder

The bladder removes water and byproducts filtered out by the kidneys from the body. To support the bladder’s function, it’s important to stay hydrated throughout the day, especially in the time leading up to this period (so don’t leave all your water-drinking for late at night!). The bladder is the yang organ to the kidney’s yin and sometimes kidney deficiencies or imbalances can be both detected and treated through the bladder.

5 – 7 PM: Kidney

The kidney is kind of the perpetual understudy—or maybe, more aptly, emergency medical technician—in the body, supplying back-up energy (jing) to any organ that is low on qi, and repairing and supplying balance to the whole body system. The kidney also governs the reproductive function of the body as well as the body’s fluids: water, tears, saliva, perspiration, etc. It’s great to have a light dinner at this time, to nourish the kidneys and their partner organ, the small intestine. You may experience kidney deficiency in the ears, which are the sensory organ associated with the kidneys, as deafness, tinnitus or ear infections; or as reduced libido; fatigue; excessive sweating; or as panic, anxiety or fear. Take a walk or do some light stretching after dinner to facilitate the kidney’s functioning.

7 – 9 PM: Pericardium

The pericardium is literally a sac or membrane that surrounds the heart. In TCM, the pericardium is the heart protector, the drawbridge to the heart, letting relationships in or keeping them out, but also protecting against infection and disease. It also physically promotes circulation throughout our bodies. As such, this is thought of as a good time to be physically intimate.

9 – 11 PM: San Jiao or Triple Burner

The triple burner, or San Jiao, is a very important fire element. It regulates circulation, body temperature and the movement and metabolism of fluids in the body. It’s not an organ in the traditional sense, but it is a substance that exists between your muscles and your skin. The San Jiao is the opposite time of the Spleen in the Chinese body clock system. During Spleen time (9-11 AM), it is the best time to do your work and expend the most energy of the day. Since San Jiao is the opposite time, this is the best time to unwind and relax and go to bed, which helps the San Jiao’s role of regulating the body’s functions.

11 PM – 1 AM: Gallbladder

The gallbladder is the partner organ to the liver in TCM. It stores and excretes bile, which aids in the digestive process, and it controls the sinews of the body (tendons and ligaments). It is also related to decision-making. If you are super indecisive, this is a sign of a gallbladder imbalance. The gallbladder is also closely related to our passions and dreams and the quality of our sleep.

1 – 3 AM: Liver

The liver is very important in TCM, as it regulates the body’s qi and emotions, essentially ensuring the body’s homeostasis. As such, the liver is the organ most affected by stress or excess emotions. The eyes are the sensory organ connected with the liver, and in our screen-dependent world, it makes sense that liver deficiencies are increasingly common. A liver deficiency/imbalance may surface as irritability or anger, or as eye issues such as blurry vision or dry and itchy eyes. Rest is so important to allow the liver to function properly. Set your evenings up to allow yourself to rest during this time: limit alcohol consumption, stop drinking caffeine a few hours before bed (if not longer), turn off the screens at least 2 hours before bed, and maybe do some meditation or acupressure to ease into sleep.

It’s interesting not only to think about what time of day each organ is the strongest, but also when it is the weakest—on the “opposite” side of the day. Between 1 and 3 AM, for example, is the time when the small intestine is the weakest, so you don’t want to have eaten right before this period and be forcing your small intestine to start digestive processes. It—like you!—should be resting! Think of the body clock as yet another helpful tool in your arsenal, rather than a rigid dictation of what your day should look like: you don’t have to freak out if you can’t manage to have dinner between 5 and 7 PM. But it can be another great reminder to get in tune with your body.