It’s been about a decade since I wrote a series of articles about the “Chinese clock,” and I’ve been asked about it recently by several students and patients, so I decided it was time to revisit the topic. The “Chinese clock” is a concept of diurnal Qi movement in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) – meaning, the way energy ebbs and flows through the body over the course of the day. There are twelve main organs and each has a two-hour period of the day when its energy peaks. Paying attention to this cycle can help us achieve better health and can also offer clues about where problems may originate.
Before we explore the significance of each two-hour block, it’s important to note that I’ll be discussing the organs from a TCM perspective, which is a bit deeper than our Western understanding. Through this expanded view, each organ has both physical and mental functions, and it encompasses not just the internal organ but an energetic circuit called a channel or meridian.
5:00 to 7:00 AM – Large Intestine Time
According to Edison Research, among people who wake up before 10 AM, 30% are awake by 6:00. Another 23% awaken between 6:00 and 6:30, and 13% more wake up between 6:30 and 7:00. So, 66% of morning-wakers arise during Large Intestine Time. And to put it bluntly, this is the ideal time to poop. If you’re constipated, sometimes you can reset your bowels by simply sitting on the toilet during this period and waiting. (You can improve your chances by drinking a glass of hot water.)
The expanded version of the large intestine is that it represents our capacity to “take out the trash” – that is, to recognize and let go of the garbage we’re carrying around: thoughts, beliefs, habits, and attachments that burden, disempower, or degrade us rather than serving us. Anytime is a good time to let go, but during these two hours, before most of us get busy, before we check our email, get on Facebook, read the news, and start filling our minds with data, we have a special capacity to release.
When you have a bowel movement (regardless of whether or not it’s between 5:00 and 7:00 AM), you can intend that you’re letting go of anything you’re done with, even visualizing that you’re directing it into your intestines. The large intestine also has a close relationship with the lungs, which can facilitate letting go through the breath. Every exhale is a letting go and deepening the breath while relaxing the belly can help promote the wringing (peristaltic) movement of the intestines.
7:00 to 9:00 AM – Stomach Time
The stomach is the organ that first receives the food we swallow, and begins the process of breaking it down so we can absorb its nutrients. In the broader TCM concept of the stomach, it represents our ability to receive and accept nurturing and support, to recognize the fruits of our labors, and to allow ourselves to be mothered.
The peak period of the stomach is from 7:00 to 9:00 AM, which is the ideal time to have a fortifying meal. Your body is most likely to process this meal efficiently, which lends some credibility to the saying that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. In order to make the most of this special digestive mojo, it’s actually a great time to have some vegetables and protein, rather than, say, the empty calories of a bagel and coffee.
Meanwhile, set aside at least a moment in the breakfast process to consciously choose to be nourished and to receive the abundant gifts in your life. Close your eyes, savor the tastes and textures of what you’re chewing and be grateful. Of course, you can exercise your metaphoric stomach at any time by bringing your consciousness to the “harvest” that’s available to you.
9:00 to 11:00 AM – Pi Time
Following the stomach, our food passes into the small intestine where enzymes from the pancreas and bile from the gallbladder further prepare it to be absorbed and distributed. Most of these digestive functions fall under the role of the organ called the pi (pronounced “pee”) in Chinese Medicine. (It’s often mistranslated as “spleen,” an organ that has nothing to do with digestion.) The pi has two main jobs – the transformation of food into something the body can assimilate, and the transportation of these nutrients throughout the body.
To extend this idea beyond nutrition, the pi represents your capacity to nurture and hold the many parts of yourself, your life, and your world – people, projects, career, etc. The pi is associated with the earth element and works for us much in the same way that Mother Earth holds, supports, and feeds everything that lives upon her.
During this time of day, imagine that the energy from your breakfast is making its way into all your cells, fortifying your body, and strengthening and stabilizing your mind. You can facilitate this process by avoiding stress and intense exercise at this time. Consider the whole world, even the parts you dislike or disagree with, as an extension of your own body, and exclude nourishment from none of it.
I’ll discuss the remaining time periods over the next couple weeks, but for now, I wanted to avoid giving you too much new information to digest. Think about just these three time periods in the morning, and see how you’re affected by bringing consciousness to these phases of your day.
Dr. Peter Borten