What Traditional Chinese Medicine Thinks about Sleep Cycle and Ideal Bedtime

Suffering from insomnia? Not sure when to sleep? Traditional Chinese Medicine's view on the sleep cycle may have the solution for you!

A table clock with a blurred image of a woman sleeping on her bed in the background.

If you identify with the phrase ‘No rest for the wicked’ in relation to sleeping, chances are, you’re lacking quality snooze time and your sleep cycle is messed up. 

When we doze off, our brain goes through a sleep cycle every night. After you experience drowsiness, your body goes into N1 (light sleep), N2, N3 (deep sleep) and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. In total, the whole cycle lasts approximately 90 minutes and normally repeats four to six times. Our sleep cycle can also determine how rested we are at night. If we get awakened from our slumber suddenly, the cycle will be broken, and it will have to start all over again. This can decrease our sleep quality and make us feel tired the next day.

Healthy human sleep cycle vector illustration diagram with female in bed and sleep stages. Educational circle type infographic scheme with arrows.
The sleep cycle repeats four to six times nightly and if broken, can make you feel tired as you’d have to start all over again.

The concept of the sleep cycle explained above is based on the 2007 guidelines of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM). However, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) sees it differently. By looking at what happens in our body every hour while being asleep—and awake, TCM’s version of the sleep cycle may give us an idea about the best time to go to bed. Keep reading to know more! 

Sleeping and the Sleep Cycle in TCM 

To understand the sleep mechanism from TCM’s point of view, we must first go back to one of its foundations, the Yin and Yang principle. With yin representing passivity (descending motion) and yang symbolising activity (ascent), the two forces might be complete opposites, but they are also complimentary. TCM uses yinyang to interpret many of its theories on health or various diseases and conditions, including sleep.

The ancient Chinese medical text, Lingshu (灵枢), describes how yin and yang influence sleep. In TCM, the sleep-and-awake cycle is regulated by the continuous circulation of wei qi (卫气 , protective qi). It is believed that wei qi travels in yang by day and in yin at night. When yang is depleting, yin will be in fullness, leading to sleepiness. And vice versa; when yin is at its end, yang will be abundant, resulting in wakefulness. 

This process can also explain insomnia and its remedies. TCM views insomnia as the consequence of an excess of yang or fire in the Heart and Liver. The Heart is thought to be the ruler of shen (神), which is equivalent to the mind or spirit. When there is too much yang or fire in the Heart, the shen will get affected, which distresses the mind and causes emotional disorders like insomnia. This is why TCM physicians usually prescribe medicines that reduce the fire and nourish the yin when treating insomnia. 

An overhead shot of a woman lying awake in her bed in a dark room.
Your insomnia might be the result of an unhealthy sleep cycle.

Ideal Bedtime Based on TCM’s Sleep Cycle  

While wei qi circulates the body, it goes through the meridians (the channels where our qi, blood and body fluids move). Wei qi does this 25 times along yang meridians during daytime and then 25 more times throughout yin meridians at night-time.

When wei qi flows through a meridian, it will spend around two hours in it. There, wei qi will vitalise and strengthen the organs correlated with the said meridian. Afterwards, wei qi will resume its journey to the next meridian, where it will repeat its action to nourish other organs.

A side view of a woman lying on the grass with her eyes closed and a smile.
Our awake-and-sleep cycle works like nature.

The chart below depicts which meridians wei qi visits and the organs it interacts with during its 24-hour circulation. Using the meridian clock as a basis, we can determine the best time to sleep according to TCM, which is by 11pm.  

1am – 3am Liver 
3am – 5am Lungs 
5am – 7am Large intestines 
9am – 11am Spleen 
11am – 1pm Heart 
1pm – 3pm Small intestines 
3pm – 5pm Bladder 
5pm – 7pm Kidneys 
7pm – 9pm Kidneys 
9pm – 11pm Triple burner (the system that manages the movement of water) 
11pm – 1am Gall bladder 

The chart above can also identify if there’s a disruption in the organ systems. If sleep constantly gets disturbed at a particular hour, it may indicate trouble in the corresponding organ. 

A good night’s rest is vital well-being, and to achieve that, you need to maintain a healthy sleep cycle. Your job or life demands may keep you awake for many hours, and you may not know when to take a break. But you shouldn’t forgo your rest, as sleep is necessary to revitalise and strengthen your organs according to TCM.

This is an adaptation of an article, “Natural Rhythm of Yin and Yang in Our Body”, which first appeared on the Eu Yan Sang website 

References

  1. Yumpu. 2002. Lingshu [online]. Available at: <https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/16050266/huangdi-neijing-lingshu-biblionhat-namru> [Accessed 27 March 2022] 
  2. Eu Yan Sang. 2018. TCM And Childhood Ailments: Disturbed Sleep [online]. Available at: <https://www.euyansang.com.sg/en/tcm-and-childhood-ailments%3A-disturbed-sleep/eyschailments2.html> [Accessed 27 March 2022] 
  3. Science Direct. 2016. Human biological rhythm in traditional Chinese medicine [online]. Available at: <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2095754816301028> [Accessed 27 March 2022] 

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