Traditional Chinese medicine is a complete medical system that has been passed down to us. It offers information about sleep health. Sleep is a result of the natural rhythm of energy circulation. At 11:00 p.m., the yin energy (qi) is at its strongest. This is the ideal time for the body to return to rest, restoration, and replenishment.
You should therefore not stay awake past 11:00 p.m. This is also the time for your body to build up yang energy (qi), which provides the energy you need for physical and mental activities during the daytime. Your body’s qi and blood pass through and nurture each organ of your body throughout the day and night.
Different times of night have a greater impact on different organs in your body. For example, between 1:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m., blood and qi are strongest in your liver and its meridians (an energetic network fulfilling liver function). Therefore, sleeping during this time is critical for your liver to be able to function normally.
In Chinese medicine, your liver bears an incredible amount of responsibility — physically, mentally, and emotionally. Liver energy regulates your mood, digestion, menstruation, dreaming, the sleep-wake switch, vision, and the smooth flow of energy throughout the body. It is in charge of strategic planning and execution, and nurtures all of the connective tissues in your body, from ligaments to nails.
Your liver is extremely sensitive to negative emotions, such as anger and resentment. If your liver is not being cared for well, you will be irritable and agitated. Now you can see how serious the consequences to your health will be if you do not sleep at the times you should.
The other important organ system that is nurtured by qi and blood is your lungs (strongest from 3:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m.). Your lungs are responsible for providing oxygen to your body, defense against infection, nourishment to your skin, and for assisting in the regulation of food and water metabolism.
Being emotionally distressed, eating the wrong kinds of food, or exposing yourself to environmental toxicity or infections disturbs your body’s organs and meridians, and can create sleep disorders.
For example, when your kidney energy, (your major source of cooling energy) becomes too deficient to balance the heart energy (your major source of heat energy), you cannot fall asleep.
When your liver yang energy is not balanced by your liver’s yin energy, you may get nightmares, sleepwalk, and experience restless leg syndrome. When your spleen and lung qi are deficient, your body accumulates fat, as well as phlegm that can block the airways, causing obstructive sleep apnea.
Therefore, from the Chinese-medicine perspective, sleep disorders are a superficial manifestation of underlying imbalances of your body’s energies. These imbalances cause health issues that are often improved by modifying your lifestyle, including getting healthy sleep, eating properly, meditating, exercising, and reducing stress.
For those who have more troublesome symptoms, receiving courses of treatment with acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine is important. The last thing you want to do is to mask the symptoms by simply taking medications.
Dr. Yang is a leading physician, board-certified psychiatrist, and international expert on classic forms of traditional Chinese medicine. He is a fourth-generation teacher and practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, specializing in acupuncture.