Chinese Body Clock

June 3, 2019

As an acupuncturist, I ask my patients a lot of questions about their symptoms. A lot. Probably an annoying number of questions, but for good reason. Beyond wanting to know the quality, intensity, duration, and triggers of their symptoms, I always probe into timing and frequency, my wheels turning as to the potential contribution of time to patients’ experiences.

If you’re suffering from something significant, be it a pain issue, a mental-emotional issue, or otherwise, it can often feel as though the sensation is more or less your constant companion but often, if you examine it, you’ll find that symptoms wax and wane throughout the day, and may fall into distinct patterns.

It’s not uncommon for pain issues, insomnia, anxiety, brain fog and so on to become pronounced during specific periods of the day. It may seem arbitrary, but the Chinese Medicine view holds that it is not – there is a special significance to symptoms that appear or flare at particular times on a regular, ongoing basis.

For example, many people who have difficulty staying asleep will wake at a certain time in the night on a regular basis, such as 1:00 or 2:00am.

To glean some insights as to why a symptom or condition might spike at a particular point in the day, we can look to the Chinese body clock.


This perspective divides the day into twelve two-hour segments, with an organ system designated to each segment. The theory is that the organ system assigned to a given two hour period is at its peak during that time, which, in the case of an imbalance in that organ system, can cause an exacerbation of symptoms.

Going back to the insomnia example, the Liver is assigned to the period from 1:00 – 3:00am. Intricately tied to the stress response, it’s no surprise that stressed-out, insomnia-ravaged folks are waking at this point in the night. Digging a bit deeper, the spiritual component of the liver deals with vision and life planning; those who struggle in this arena – either being excessively scheduled and planned every hour of the day or, conversely, having no vision for the future – may have issues with their liver systems that manifest with difficulty staying asleep, particularly during the liver time.
This can be applied to any clinical scenario and is not necessarily something you’d want to hang your hat on diagnostically, but it adds dimension to our understanding of what might be contributing to a symptom or condition.

Harnessing this knowledge can help us optimize our days and our lifestyles as well. For instance, the spleen is associated with the period from 9:00 – 11:00am. The spleen is all about consumption – in a physical sense as it relates to digestion and in a mental-emotional sense as it relates to taking in information – making this an excellent time to learn something new, or eat something nourishing.

Likewise, the small intestine, at its peak from 1:00 – 3:00pm, is all about sorting and organizing, making this a good time for problem solving, or cleaning out your closet or your inbox.

Maybe you’re plagued by brain fog in the morning. A weakness in the stomach organ system, dominant from 7:00-9:00am, can impair the body’s ability to distribute what we call yang energy to the head, resulting in brain fog and lethargy.

As with all things in Chinese Medicine, there are few absolutes, and many more ‘it depends.’ This is no exception – often there’s more to the story than the timing and frequency of symptomatic complaints but the Chinese Medicine body clock provides a fun and accessible way to reach a deeper understanding of ourselves and our experiences.

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