If you sleep a full seven to nine hours every night, does it matter when you hit the pillow?
Yes, it does, according to Chinese medicine.
For thousands of years, Chinese medicine has recognized a circadian rhythm, centered on the qi (vital energy) and organs, that syncs up with the ebb and flow of nature.
So when we stay up late, not only are we working against our body’s own natural cycle, we’re also working against the momentum of nature, which we are very much connected to, explained Tsao-Lin Moy, a Manhattan-based doctor of Chinese medicine. When we go to bed late, we end up dipping into and depleting our energy reserves on a deep level.
“If we go to bed late … then we are going against the movement of the Earth,” Dr. Moy said, in an email. “People who have jobs where they stay up all night tend to suffer from many types of illnesses.”
Modern research on sleep has also found that the timing of sleep is important. Working night shifts has been shown to put people at greater risk of heart trouble, stomach issues, breast cancer, and problems during pregnancy.
Research into the microbiome has also shown that our gut bacteria have circadian rhythms that are thrown off when we stay awake through the night.
Other research suggests that going to sleep on the early side may benefit heart health.
So what’s the optimal time to go to bed?
Hit the sack by 10 p.m. and be dreaming by 11 p.m., Dr. Moy said.
In Chinese medicine, 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. is considered the most yin period of the day. Yin is soft, nurturing, and passive energy that is nourished by darkness and quiet. Sleeping is a very yin activity, so sleeping during this yin period helps the body rejuvenate more fully.
“This time is when we can get the optimal sleep. Because we are with the rhythm of the Earth, our sleep quality is higher,” she said.
Qi and Organs
From the Chinese medicine perspective, qi travels through our body along energetic pathways called meridians. As qi travels through the body, it concentrates in different organs during different times of the day.
From 11 p.m. to 1 a.m, qi is in the gallbladder, and from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m, qi is in the liver. It is ideal if you can sleep during these two periods in order to allow these organs to recharge and detoxify, according to Chinese medical doctor Jingduan Yang.
“These two organs are major players in the healthy functioning of your system during the daytime. Allowing this meridian the time to rest and replenish is vital to healthy living,” he writes in his book “Facing East: Ancient Health and Beauty Secrets for the Modern Age.”
Dr. Yang also recommends taking a nap sometime between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., because qi is concentrated in the heart during this time, and sleeping then can help the body recover from daily stressors.
Syncing Back Up With Nature
If you have trouble sleeping, Dr. Moy suggests paying attention to the light in your environment. Many of us live in well-lit environments, with street lamps and glowing screens giving us too much stimulation. A dark room and a round of acupressure on your feet, wrists, and head can help you relax and let go of tension before bed.
Dr. Yang also advises sleeping more in the winter to conserve energy and help revitalize you. A warm foot bath and meditation at bedtime can help improve your quality of sleep, too.