When studying or reading about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) it can appear at first glance to be very functional – this point for that illness and that meridian for this organ or function. Too often, it can be easy to lose sight of the very essence of TCM and the broader philosophy that underpins it – that there is an energy (‘qi’ or ‘chi’) within us that is constantly circulating and changing but also that this energy is always interchanging with the universal qi that exists around us.
This energy is called Qi in TCM (Ki in Japan and similar to Prana in Ayurveda) and it flows through and within all things – not just us. Thus, you are always connected to and part of the greater whole and do not exist in isolation from it. Flowing from this, our environment, how we think, the people around us, the news we watch, what we eat and drink, our emotions and beliefs can all affect our qi. On a universal level, qi is the energy that holds all things together – and apart. It is that which holds your cells in place and planets in location. It is everywhere and nowhere and is in a constant state of flux – a flux that you live in everyday of your life. When our qi is out of balance this can manifest as a physical illness. Any of the above factors can throw us off balance and thus we say things like we are ‘off form’, or we ‘caught’ a cold or we ‘feel’ down.
Because our qi is affected by a myriad of factors we can also use this process in reverse – if our qi is out of balance we can use different areas in our life to help re-balance it. So for example, we can use herbs to affect our qi (herbal medicine), or exercise (Yoga or qi gong), breathing and meditation (tai chi for example) or alter our physical environment (feng shui) or the circle of friends we socialise with. There are a myriad of ways that we can affect our qi just as there are many ways in which our qi can be affected.
Having a grasp then of the manner in which qi circulates in our bodies is helpful to understanding how our bodies withstand illness and replenish themselves within the greater universe of qi. Over thousands of years, the knowledge in TCM has been refined so that a picture has emerged of the way qi enters our bodies and circulates within them. TCM itself is peppered with references to this interplay of our qi within our bodies and qi in the greater universe – for example, 365 acupoints for 365 days or knees and shoulders representing mountains while underneath these (the popliteal and axilla spaces) representing valleys. We are also susceptible to different imbalances depending on the season e.g. cold in winter and wind in autumn. This can be seen in the way our pulse can subtly differ depending on what season we are in. We also have such concepts in TCM as using the Five Shu points depending on season – Jing Spring acupoints are used in Spring, Shu Stream points in summer, Jing River in Autumn, He Sea and Jing Well in Winter.
Our biological rhythm is something that has evolved over millennia and it has evolved to hold a natural rhythm to the universal flow of energy. Some use the term ‘circadian clock’ to describe this rhythm within us, a flow of energy through our bodies that takes place over the course of 24 hours. This is our internal clock that dictates when we wake and fall asleep and when we are at our most alert or in deep sleep. TCM allocates a time to each organ (or more accurately, each function) during which they are most active and understanding this flow helps us to understand the manifestation of illness within our bodies and how to help prevent imbalance from occurring in the first place.
We take in qi in many ways – through our breathing, our skin, the food and drink we eat and our environment. Lung Qi is primarily the result of the air we breathe. Our lungs are responsible for our skin and hair – the first line of defense (Wei Qi) against external pathogens. Thus good strong lung qi makes us resilient against external dis-ease such as colds and flu. Our lungs are often also the first to suffer from an external pathogen. TCM assigns the time of 3-5am to our lungs and it is during these hours that we find our oxygen being replenished and toxins being flushed internally from our bodies.
From 5-7am, it is the turn of the Large Intestine and it moves to allow us discharge these toxins via our bowel movements. This isn’t just a physical process, but also a mental and spiritual one – allowing ourselves time the morning to process any emotions and feelings gives us space to ‘unclog’ our minds and emotional bodies. When we rise at this hour and rush headlong into a day of work, stuffing ourselves with coffee and fast food, it is literally like we are clogging ourselves bite by bite, thought by thought and not giving ourselves a chance to discharge yesterdays actions.
The Stomach is next up from the hours of 7am-9am and it is a good time to eat to set us up for the day. Food should be nourishing and filling and it is a good idea to start off with some gentle warming foods to allow our bodies adjust from a night of rest.
Having eaten, we find ourselves in the realms of the Spleen (9am – 11am) which as a very earthy organ is responsible for earthly matters – thus tackle the hardest jobs of the day at this time! Its also an organ of digestion so we can continue (or start) eating during this time to build nourishment and energy levels.
From 11am to 1pm , we cross the threshold from morning to afternoon and it is the time of the Heart. Just like the sun in the sky at noon, the heart is working hardest at this time and so is under additional strain as we process our day’s workload – it is no co-incidence that many cardiac arrests are noted at this time of day. The Heart is the organ of joy (we ‘feel’ happiness in our heart) so it is a good idea to have lunch with people that make you laugh and feel good.
After lunch, our Small Intestine takes over from 1pm -3pm. This is the organ that helps digestion, sorting the good from the bad. Thus, we can also sort any issues that remain from the day in our work lives. Bloating or digestion issues can rear their heads at this time if our diet isn’t in balance with our requirements.
As we sail in to the waters of the Bladder from 3pm -5pm our bodies begin to prepare for the night – thus we start storing and holding onto energy. The afternoon slump is no accident at this time as our bodies hoard energy for the night ahead instead of letting us burn through it too fast.
The Kidney takes over from 5pm-7pm. If you notice any feelings of fear or are over stressed leaving work at this time, take note – the Kidneys are responsible for the emotion of fear and having dread knotted in our core daily is a sign that maybe we are walking the wrong path. It is also a good time to replenish our reserves with a light meal and to get in some exercise to improve our circulation.
From 7-9pm the Pericardium Qi is at its height. The pericardium protects the heart and this theme of protection should carry over into our lives. Learning to love ourselves and those around us, doing things we love, undertaking mindfulness and meditation and generally treating ourselves is a great way to strengthen the Pericardium. This also helps de-stress us and remember, stress is one of the biggest causes of dis-ease there is!
As the flow of Qi moves from 9-11pm so its the turn of the Triple Heater which affects our endocrine system. It also symbolically holds an upper middle and lower heater equating to taking it, processing and eliminating from the body. Getting to sleep around this time is beneficial to allow our bodies start to repair and replenish themselves.
The Gall Bladder has a time of 11pm – 1am and it is the bodies time to heal. The Gall Bladder is responsible for the muscles and sinews in TCM so anyone looking to build muscle or engaged in strenuous exercise shoudn’t underestimate the importance of proper rest. This is the time the Gall Bladder is most active in processing fats so late night owls can find they hold onto fat easier than most.
From 1-3am our Liver is busy processing feelings of anxiety and frustration. Still being awake at this hour can cause us to carry over unresolved feelings of anxiety to tomorrow. If you have already been asleep and find yourself waking during this time, ensure that your daily routine isn’t causing you undue anxiety frustration or stress. This is also .the time toxins are removed from our system and sent onwards for elimination.
Generally, we should note the times we wake up at during the night as these can give us a clue as to any unresolved issues we are having. Being aware of this rhythm and creating a routine around it brings us into our natural alignment, both with ourselves and the greater environment we operate within.
Our energy is never static but always moving, changing and flowing from one meridian and organ to the next.